Wednesday 25 July 2007

The Value of Orthodox Paradox - Part 2

Originally published 7/25/07, 8:23 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
The article, "Orthodox Paradox",  by Noah Feldman that appeared in last Sunday's New York Times has received much attention across the Modern Orthodox world (and beyond). I would just like to take this opportunity to add some further insights.

As expressed below, much of the attention has focused on the conflict between modernity and Torah that seems to be at the root of Dr. Feldman's thoughts. He, thereby, criticizes his Modern Orthodox education for presenting the reality of this conflict and the potential values within the embracing of this conflict but, in turn, rejecting his specific way of living with this conflict which includes intermarriage.
Dr. Feldman is wrong on two points. First, the teaching of the conflict of values within Torah goes beyond the issue of modernity and Torah. It is inherent in Torah as Torah itself teaches the reality of conflicting values. All Modern Orthodoxy has really done is highlighted the extent of the issue as Modern Orthodoxy embraces a wide spectrum of values and embraces a wide spectrum of values -- but it is all within Torah. A major mistake that is often made is that Modern Orthodoxy is embracing values that really are outside of Torah and trying to figure out how to include these values in the world of Torah. This is incorrect. What Modern Orthodoxy sees is the enormous spectrum of Torah values and recognizes the Torah value in certain aspects of modernity -- but the value issue is within Torah.
Viewed this way, one further recognizes the important second part of the halachic equation. Torah does not just teach us to see the wealth of human existence and view the world as filled with a multitude of values; it then declares a process by which one can make decisisions in this world of complexity and, yes, declare what one must do. This is what would seem to have been missing in Dr. Feldman's analysis. The prohibition against intermarriage is not just simply our method of balancing conflicting values - so clearly brought out in this article - and in Rabbi Shmuely Boteach's supportive article, "Stop Ostracizing the Intermarried", in the Jerusalem Post. It IS the Torah decision and the demanded, legal conclusion whose negation has its own consequence.
I also wonder how much the acclaim that Dr. Feldman seems to have received as the boy genius may have affected his later decisions and views. There is another dialectic in Torah between humility and proper praise/encouragement of talent. Often, we must stress the latter to overcome a negativity in the former. Sometimes we need to stress the former. The real message of Torah is that we must present both simultaneously.

Monday 23 July 2007

The Value of Orthodox Paradox

Originally published 7/23/07, 10:56 AM, Eastern Daylight Time
Noah Feldman's New York Times article entitled "Orthodox Paradox" raises many important issues on the nature of Modern Orthodoxy, specifically, and, in fact, Orthodoxy generally. We invite you to view this article and to comment below. (If the New York Times link is no longer active, try this.)

The reality is that Torah is all about the reality of conflicting values. The decisions that we must continuously make are generally not between the force of evil and the force of good, but rather reflect the conflict of opposing values, in the moment when we can only choose one. Indeed, Torah recognizes value in the universal and particular. However, they are often in conflict. Therein lies our need to decide.
Since the Torah describes the value of both, in choosing one, which indeed is still demanded, we also paradoxically recognize the loss in the non-application of the value that was not chosen. Does this create the reality of paradox? Indeed it does. Does it create a reality of complexity and reasons for choosing against the decision of Halacha? Indeed it does.
There is a reason why certain realms of Orthodoxy attempt to ignore the reality of this complexity, the very complexity of Torah. Noah Feldman words show the problem when Torah is seen in all its complexity. People, even those as intelligent as Mr. Feldman, do not understand the whole message, the very structure of this complex paradox. Many choose not to teach this complexity. Their answer is, to effectively distort Torah into a simple model that perhaps ensures its continuity at least on some level. Yet what is lost, though, is Torah itself, for the very essence of the genius of the Divine wisdom of Torah is this complexity -- and so the struggle to continue the teaching of the truth, even given its difficult nature, continues.
The problem is not the complexity of Torah but how to deal with this complexity. That is what yields an apparent paradox which, in turn, must be explained. For example, it seems to me that it is in total keeping with Torah that Mr. Feldman was greeted warmly on the personal individual basis even as his school refused to publish announcements of his family. There is a difference between how one is to treat the individual and how the structure of authority is to treat the violation of Halalcha. I can great the one who drives to shul on Shabbat warmly and in a most welcoming fashion, recognizing that this may be this person's only connection with Jewish life and so in some way even encouraging this person to be there in shul on shabbat. I, though, in presenting the authority of Halacha must equally, publicly, declare that halachically it is forbidden to drive and better for someone to stay home than attend a shul through driving.
It this paradoxical? Yes. Is it still viable? Yes. Is this clearly Torah? Yes. Does it demand complex analysis to show how both co-exist? Yes. This is ultimately what this article really indicates for us -- to meet the challenge of the complexity of Torah.
In doing so, it is also important to recognize the power of Halacha as law, as a force that demands compliance through the power of the Commander. Mr Feldman discusses the role of intermarriage as defining the borders of the religious community. There is some truth in that especially as we move into the generic Jewish community. But it is the statement of intermarriage halachically that, I would say, guided his school's position and this must also be seen. Too often we give so many taamei hamitzvot, reasons for commandments, that we lose sight of the reality of the basic mitzvah, its nature as law/command. Sometimes we must see law as law and accept the definitions set by this standard.
These thoughts are in specific reference to certain aspects of Mr. Feldman's article and do not stand alone. Read the article. Let me know what you think both about the article and my comments on the article. It is time we confronted the paradox, the reality of its existence and this essential value within Torah -- to live within this complex realm of life and meet God's demands of us in this true vision of life.

Thursday 19 July 2007

Halachic Dilemma #2 - When should the Hazzan Return

Originally published 7/19/07, 3:10 pm, Eastern Daylight Time.
Standard procedure is that, at a Minyan, the Chazzan repeats the Amidah. Sometimes this practice is suspended in favor of a "Heichah Kedushah" - especially in Minchah Minyanim at work, at some yeshivos, etc.
There once was a daily Minyan scheduled every day at 1:45 p.m at the fictional "Software BigShots, Ltd.". After a vote, it was decided to have a full Chazaras Hashatz. This meant that the service typically took about fifteen minutes.
Despite the presence of about three yekkes, the Minyan rarely started on time. This meant that when it started five minutes late, the break was twenty minutes long. When the minyan began ten minutes late - it meant twenty-five minutes, etc. Managers at Software BigShots, Ltd were not happy with these extended breaks.
According to the Mishna, po'alim can shorten their davening any time. There was a lot of discussion about abusing company time etc.

Given that the Minyan was rarely, if ever, punctual what would be the best approach? Here are some possible proposals - although you might come up with others:
  1. Always and unconditionally do a "Heicha Kedusah".
  2. Always and unconditionally do a Chazras Hashatz & fuggedabout the consequences.
  3. When on-time: do a full chazras hashatz ; & when late: do a "Heicha Kedusah".
  4. Don't let the latecomers vote for Chazras Hashatz until they learn to come on time.
  5. Drop the Minyan completely so as not to abuse company time.
Your comments are welcome!

Kol Tuv,
Rabbi Richard Wolpoe

Tuesday 17 July 2007

Striking a Balance - When is Close too Close?

Originally published 7/17/07, 12:45 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
  1. Given the text below, when is close too close for comfort?
  2. Can one generate a warm relationship between student and mentor without becoming too
  3. Is it appropriate for a "rebbe" to maintain a distance?
  4. Should this distance include a "coolness", or should it remain warm but distant
  5. What happens when a Mentor is close but wants to give mussar?
  6. What happens when a student oversteps his bounds and plays the role of "buddy"?
  7. When is it OK for a rebbe resort to tactics such as nidduy?
  8. When is it OK for a student/Talmid to demand that his rebbbe stop picking on him?
  9. And how should a Talmid approach his rebbe when the student is indeed well within his rights to tell him off?

They each said three things: Rabbi Eliezer said: Let the honor of your fellow be as precious to you as your own; do not be easily angered; and repent one day before your death. And warm yourself beside the fire of the Sages; but beware of their glowing coals lest you be burned, for their bite is the bite of a fox, their sting is the sting of a scorpion, and their hiss is the hiss of a serpent, and all their words are like coals of fire.
They - the above mentioned disciples of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, said three things - i.e., taught three ethical doctrines, as follows: Rabbi Eliezer - ben Hyrkanus, said: Let the honor of your fellow be as precious to you as your own - do not insult your friend just as you do not want others to insult you. Furthermore, if someone offends your friend, consider the matter as if your own honor has been tainted (Midrash Sh'muel). On the other hand, if your friend is honored, welcome it as though you yourself had been honored (Notzer Hesed). Do not be easily angered - do not be impulsive and readily provoked, for anger breeds sin and disrespect for one's companion, as they said, (Pes. 66b): "Whoever is prone to anger - if he is a Sage, his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet, his prophecy disowns him." Moreover, (Ned. 22b): "Whoever is prone to anger, forgets his learning and grows ever more foolish, as it is said (Eccl. 7:9): "Be not hasty in your spirit to be angry, for anger rests in the bosom of fools."
And repent one day before your death - in Avot de Rabbi Natan we read: "The disciples of Rabbi Eliezer asked him: But does a man know on which day he will die, that he may repent? He said to them: That is all the more reason to repent today, lest he die tomorrow; repent tomorrow, lest he die the day after; thus throughout all his life he will be in a state of repentance." The Gemara (Shab. 153a) adds: "And Shlomo, too, said in his wisdom (Eccl. 9:8): 'Let your garments always be white; and let not your head lack ointment.' Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai said: This recalls the parable of a king who invited his servants to a feast, but did not appoint a time. The intelligent ones adorned themselves and sat at the door of the palace, saying: Is anything lacking in the royal palace? (The invitation might come at any time). The foolish ones went about their work, saying: Can there be a feast without preparations? Suddenly, the king summoned his servants. The intelligent entered the palace wearing their ornaments, whereas the foolish entered filthy. The king rejoiced at the intelligent, and frowned at the foolish."
And warm yourself beside the fire of the Sages - this statement, made in addition to the three things, has been interpreted as follows: When learning Torah from the Sages, draw near and listen to their words, like one who approaches a fire in order to warm himself, but beware of their glowing coals lest you be burned - just as you cannot draw too near to a fire, lest you touch the coals and get burned, so also keep a safe distance from the Sages, lest you slight their honor and incur punishment, for their bite is the bite of a fox - which is difficult to heal; their sting is the sting of a scorpion - which is painful and poisonous, and their hiss - the speech of the Sages is the hiss of a serpent - the saraf, a venomous snake, which hisses when injecting its poison.
And all their words are coals of fire - hence the need for utmost vigilance. At times, the injury is as tangible as a bite, like that of a fox; at times, the injury is more superficial, like a sting, albeit that of a scorpion which is painful; and on other occasions their reaction is limited to harsh words, resembling the hiss of a serpent. These are metaphors for niddui, herem, and shamta (various degrees of excommunication imposed by the Rabbis - see Tosefot Yom Tov).
Some commentaries explain that the opening clauses of the Mishnah: Let the honor of your fellow be as precious to you as your own, and do not be easily angered complement one another, and jointly represent the first of the three things taught by Rabbi Eliezer. Thus, to ensure that your friend's honor remains as precious to you as your own, you should avoid anger; lest you will slight his status. And conversely, if your friend's honor is precious to you, you will not readily lose your temper with him.

Saturday 14 July 2007

Link to Nishma's Website

First published 7/14/07, 10:32 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
For more words of Torah and provocative thoughts on questions of Jewish Interest -
Please visit our Nishma Website at:


Wednesday 11 July 2007

"They're not anti-Semites; they just dislike Chassidim"

Originally published 7/11/07, 10:01 PM, Eastern Daylight Time
An article, written by Barbara Kay, appeared reflecting on the present situation in Quebec regarding hostility showed to some Chassidic communities in the province in Canada's National Post.

She argues that the anti-Chassidic backlash that is now being experienced in parts of Quebec should not be labelled anti-Semitism. Ms. Kay, a self-described mainstream Jew,  would also not want Chassidim moving into her neighbourhood. It's not a Jewish thing,  its just that Chassidim have practices that make them less than ideal neighbours. She understands this anti-Chassidic backlash - although, surely - not condoning the violence that has accompanied it. It is only confusing to call it anti-Semitism.

Ms. Kay's words raise so many issues. Is her distinction a legitimate one? Does this not sound like those who maintain that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism? Is there not a hint of an argument for assimilation in Ms Kay's words - Jews don't distinguish yourself through your practices? On the other hand, is there some legitimate mussar in Ms. Kay's words. Should the Chassidic community be more aware of their neighbours? Yet, whatever Ms. Kay's issues, can it justify her comments?

The Ntziv in his Introduction to Bereishit in HaEmek Davar, states that the Avot were called yashar, upright, because of how they related to the outside world. To meet the standards of Torah, one must uphold one's standards, maintaining one's principles in a world that may challenge them -- but in doing so one must still maintain a level of civility and caring to the population of the world, even, as the Ntziv states, the disgusting idolaters.

This is what the Avot did. For example, look at Avraham Avinu. He stood up to the king of Sodom and maintained his principles in the face of this evil, yet also had the caring and compassion to pray for Sodom.

This is Tisha b'Av's challenge. Sinat chinum emerges when a principled person maintains an improper hatred for those who challenge his or her principles.

Please read the National Post article. I look forward to your comments.

Sunday 8 July 2007

Is Darwin Kosher?

Originally published 7/8/07, 10:45 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
See this Wall Street Journal article for an interesting take on evolution and Modern Orthodox thought.

In a recent discussion with some of my chevra , we concluded that TRUE science and TRUE religion - since all of the above emanate from the same God - cannot be in any conflict.

However, in the human realm, we don't really understand the ultimate truths of science yet, as we probably only understand Torah or God superficially. One day, there will live a Rambam and an Einstein all wrapped up in the same person who will get to the bottom of both realms. He will discover that when you really comprehend both Torah and science, their only conflict is semantic.

I believe it was R. Sa'adya Gaon who first posited that we will grasp the rational meaning of more and more mitzvoth over time.

Here is an example: most meforshim interpret "Taninim Gedolim" as sea monsters or whales... This is loosely based on Hirsch on Parshat Vo'eira. He asserts, basing himself on the Haftorah, that we can interpret "Tanim" as crocodile and "Taninim g'dolim" as great lizards - dinosaurs. A little bit of archaeology,  some flexible etymology, and you can point to dinosaurs within the Torah.

What is definitively true of the Torah well before Darwin is that it describes a creation process progressing  from the simple to the complex. Thus, we see the confluence of Torah and Mada as an evolving process - pun most intended.


Monday 2 July 2007

Getting the story straight - Just When SHOULD we celebrate our independence?

Originally published 7/2/07, 10:53 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
NB: Even Canadians can learn a bit about history from this post...

I received the following e-mail from a Scholar of American History named Philip Trumbull Adams. [PTA] He and I were discussing history versus original intentions and how things get morphed over the years, until events are twisted out of their original form.

PTA permitted me to clip bits and pieces of our e-mail correspondence for your reading pleasure...

Is celebrating the 4th of July philologically correct or a symptom of giving in to the regnant culture?

Q: What was the prime agitator for American independence?
A: Why it was the feisty John Adams of Massachusetts

Q: What was HIS original comments on the proper celebration of American
A: *Independence Day will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. . . . It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."*


Certainly my ancestor John Adams was Prescient! He foresaw the great hoopla that would accompany the annual celebration of American Freedom.

But the quote above is misleading. Just look at the original intent of great-great-great-grandpa and get HIS philology here.
The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. . . . It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."*
--John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776*
The momentous decision of the Continental Congress to sever its ties to Great Britain came on July 2, 1776, which is the date that John Adams thought should be celebrated by future generations. The Declaration of Independence, drafted mostly by Thomas Jefferson, and edited by his colleagues in the Continental Congress, was adopted 2 days later.

The Declaration was a stirring call to throw off the bonds of tyranny. This revolutionary document expressed an abiding faith in humanity and political ideals to which this nation still aspires. The Declaration of Independence has been called the birth certificate of the United States, and it is its adoption that Americans celebrate each year with fireworks on the Fourth of

We see below two close-up views of a resolution, adopted July 2, 1776, in which the Continental Congress affirmed their independence from Great Britain. The words of the resolution, originally proposed by Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee, are echoed in the Declaration of Independence.
So, it is the SECOND of July that my prescient forefather foresaw as the anniversary of that momentous date. The original philological date has been corrupted by the Regnant Culture to use the FOURTH of July instead of the fundamentally correct SECOND of JULY!

We must abolish all subsequent history and restore Independence Day to its correct original date! It is the revisionists who have betrayed us! ] I propose, dear Rabbi Wolpoe, the establishment of the:

The Boldly & Uniformly Loyal Laborers of the ....[acronym deleted]
about the Second of July In order to Restore its rightful place in our society!


While I questioned the acronym implicit in the first line of the title, nevertheless, I must say that PT Adams is right on. Maybe we should undo all this corny stuff about the 4th of July and Yankee Doodle Dandy and go back to the good old days of the good old ways and get it right! Hail to the 2nd of July.