Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Rav Kanievsky, Abutbol and the New Generation of Mamzers

This week, a letter made the news (see an English article here) written by the "Committee for Purity of Communications," stating the following:
On the 5th of Tevet, 5774, I was by the great teacher, the sage, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, in the presence of his grandson, Rav Aryeh Kanievsky, shlita, and he said that anyone who has an iPhone, licentious internet and the like, is invalid as a witness for a wedding and a divorce. If such a person was a witness, even after the fact one has to perform the wedding or give the get (divorce document) once again.

Similarly, he said that one who certifies the validity of a mikveh for women's immersion, and similarly for a woman who immerses others [i.e. a balanit], they are invalid in their job if they have such devices; and even after the fact - if a woman already immersed - they cannot be deemed trustworthy.

With blessings,

Aharon Feinhandler,
Head of the Committee for Purity of Communications

p.s. And one should be especially careful regarding a mikveh, where even in Jerusalem and other concentrations of Haredim, most of the management of religious councils, and those responsible there do not ask and are not scrupulous in the above issue. And similarly regarding divorce and marriage, which are done by the religious courts of the Rabbanut, and a portion of the religious courts of Haredi communities. And one who guards his soul will not rely on them if he didn't first clarify regarding the above issue.

First off, I want to point out that I don't know how reliable this letter is. It's not a pronouncement from Rav Kanievsky himself. We don't know exactly what was said or whether Rav Kanievsky would agree as to the wording of the letter. We also don't know whether Rav Kanievsky wanted this to be publicized as a universal psak (rabbinic decree) in his name. But let's assume for a moment that he would sign off on the letter as if it was his own words, and that he wanted to issue it as a decree.

Would people who otherwise take Rav Kanievsky's rulings seriously actually follow such a decree? Would they get remarried? Give divorce papers again? Re-immerse in the mikveh? And imagine the following scenario: A woman gets married with "kosher" witnesses. She later gets divorced in the presence of internet-bearing and thus invalid witnesses, and as such (according to this psak) is still technically "married." If she remarries, any subsequent child she has will have the status of mamzer (meaning they are forbidden to marry anyone born Jewish, aside from another mamzer).

Point being, the decree is ridiculous if only because if people took it seriously it would lead to impossible complications. Of course, the witch hunt against internet users is ridiculous in its own right, but that's another story.

What I want to ask is the following: If you normally follow Rav Kanievsky's psak, will you also follow this one (again, assuming he would call it his psak)? And more specifically, if you voted for a candidate because you didn't want to go against the word of a Torah sage, what will you do now?

Leading up to the recent Beit Shemesh elections, Rav Kanievsky was approached by Moshe Abutbol (and others from the "Chen" party) to get his endorsement. Not only did they procure the rav's endorsement, but it was billed as a quasi-"mitzvah" to vote for Abutbol - a religious act which was to be done with an accompanying prayer. So if you voted for Moshe Abutbol because Torah sages such as Rav Kanievsky said to vote for him, will you also follow Rav Kanievsky here, and - if need be - get remarried, re-divorced, re-immersed, or declare your children to be mamzerim (Heaven forbid)? Or even worse, dare I say it - will you actually give up your smartphones and internet?

These are of course rhetorical questions. No one except for a few of the most "devout" would possibly adhere to such a decree which renders half the Orthodox world pasul for eidut (invalid as witnesses). Which then makes me want to point out our very selective use of the Gedolim (Sages). And I say "use" specifically. Because although people will say that they "follow" the Gedolim because it's required by the Torah command, "Do not turn from the word that they will tell you, right or left," the fact that the same people will completely disregard other rulings of the same Gedolim seems to imply that they do not follow the Gedolim because it's a Torah command, but rather only when it puts a religious rubber stamp on what they want to do anyway. So de-facto, it's not we who follow the Sages but the Sages who follow us. By using Torah sages only when it's politically, socially or psychologically expedient, we in effect get them to do our bidding.

Now to be clear, I'm not someone who would want everyone to follow lock-step with every psak which came out of the mouths of the Sages. Even aside from the question of who is really doing the talking, the rabbis or their askanim (assistants), I tend to err on the side of personal autonomy, and aside from halachic questions about dairy spoons being used in meat pots and the like, I prefer to make my own choices in life. The question is for those of you who see the role of the Sages as also deciding the way you should vote or making other choices for you, and who are presumably reading this blog post via the internet: How do you resolve that tension?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Abutbol - A Victim of "Comedic" Editing?

The press is reporting the story worldwide that Mayor Moshe Abutbol said, "There are no gays in Beit Shemesh," and that gays need to be dealt with by the Ministry of Health and the police. So the first thing to do, if you haven't, is to watch the actual clip from "Shai b'Shishi" - specifically from 2:55 to 3:44.

In Stern’s interview with Moshe Abutbul, he claims “there are no gays in this pure and holy city” and that if there were, “they would be dealt with by the ministry of health and police.”

Read more at:

(For the non-Hebrew-speaker's benefit, here's a brief transcript from 2:55 to 3:44. There are edits in the first interview as well, but I'm specifically pointing out edits in the second which may be significant/misleading.)
[Shai Stern interviewing Eliran Cohen, a gay resident of Beit Shemesh.]

Shai: All in all, it's wanted that gays live in Beit Shemesh, no?
Eliran: What does that mean, "wanted"?
Shai: From the standpoint of warmth to gays.
Eliran: Not warmth to gays, it's warmth in a general sense to all people.
Shai: You voted for Abutbol, the Haredi candidate.
Eliran: Correct. Both in the previous elections and also now.
Shai: Right. Why?
Eliran: I simply like him, both as a mayor and also as a person.
Shai: Mayor Abutbol knows that you're...
Eliran: Yes, of course. For years, not [just] from today. He doesn't have any problem [with it].

[Cut to: Shai interviewing Mayor Abutbol.]

Shai: Are there gays in Beit Shemesh?
Abutbol: What?
Shai: Are there gays in Beit Shemesh?
Abutbol: We don't have things like these.
Shai: You don't?
Abutbol: If I'm thinking about what you're thinking about -
Shai: Yes.
Abutbol: Then no. Thank God, here, this city [kisses his hand] is holy and pure.
Shai: Clean?
Shai: What do you do with them then?
Abutbol: [You should] consult with them [the authorities?] - I don't know. It's not [up to me] to decide. There's the Health Ministry which deals with them -
Shai: The Health Ministry?
Abutbol: I don't know, the Health Ministry, the police. I'm not involved. It depends -
Shai: Right.
Abutbol: Buddy ['Chabibi'], from me you'll hear only good things.
Abutbol is asked by Shai Stern, "Are there gays in Beit Shemesh?" Abutbol didn't hear, and Shai repeats the question. Then, at 3:24 in, there's a critical edit. It cuts to, "We don't have these kinds of things, etc." This was not just a cut to a different camera POV - it was an edit. At 3:22, Abutbol's hands are on his desk, and a second later his right hand is suddenly up and gesticulating, clearly indicating not just a pause, but that Abutbol was in fact in the middle of speaking. About what? We don't know, because that - and perhaps a different question he was responding to - was edited out.

Then there's a second edit, at 3:32. It's harder to catch because it's a cleaner edit, but Shai is actually interrupting himself, and making it sound like "What do you do with them" is again referring to gays. Abutbol responds, "[You should] consult with them," which assumes we know who "them" is. Again, it seems to indicate another part of the conversation that was edited out.

The Mayor himself apparently later explained on the radio that he thought he was being asked about pedophiles, not gays. And yes, I concur with those who say that even if he was referring to pedophiles, this also represents a "denial" about sexual abuse taking place in the city.

BUT... THAT IS NOT what's being reported throughout the world. What's making news is that Abutbol "said" there are no gays in Beit Shemesh, and that homosexuality is something the health ministry and police would need to deal with. And what we have in fact is the question "Are there gays in Beit Shemesh?" in one part of the edit, Abutbol's statement "We don't have things like these" in a second part of the edit, and the bit about the Ministry of Health and police in a third part of the edit. Could these all be referring to gays? Theoretically yes.

But why do I think that the edit is deliberately misleading, that Abutbol was NOT in fact speaking specifically about gays?

1. The gay man interviewed (2:55 to 3:20) said he voted for Abutbol, likes him as a mayor and a person, and that Abutbol knows he's gay and has no problem with it. The man seems sincere, and I take his word for it.

2. Abutbol says we don't have these kinds of "things" in the city, which sounds like he's speaking about certain types of problematic/criminal activities. He does not say we don't have these kinds of "people," which would have made more sense given the question asked.

3. Even Haredi people who don't condone homosexuality in the least would not say that gays are something the "police" should deal with. To wit, later in the segment (see 3:44 to 4:05), R. Yitzchak Hagar speaks about homosexuality as a psychological issue, not a criminal issue.

The whole "Shai B'Shishi" segment is a comedic commentary. It's much like the interview segments done on the Daily Show, which are deliberately edited to draw laughs and often to make the interviewees look foolish. In this case however, Shai B'Shishi's edits have made international news. And in my opinion the program now needs to own up to the edits and produce the original footage UNCUT and IN FULL, so that we can see with our own eyes what Abutbol actually said, or didn't say.

My feeling is that laypeople and media alike are being dangerously naive by accepting the "no gays in Beit Shemesh" quote as fact, when there's ample evidence to suggest it was an edit-job. But more than naive - they're being grossly [if inadvertently] irresponsible by spreading it. Yes, there may be leniencies regarding lashon hara where it comes to public figures, but there is no leniency (in Halacha or in secular law) for slander, motzi shem ra - creating a bad name for a person by spreading a lie.

Yes, I agree that if someone makes a fool out of themselves, it's their own fault, not the media's. But when someone is made to look like they've said something they didn't, that is WRONG. It's slander and needs to be corrected - and appropriate restitution is due.

Monday, November 11, 2013

WoW - When a Split Can Be a Good Thing

Last month, the Board of Directors of Women of the Wall (WoW) voted to accept a compromise solution, whereby WoW would move its Rosh Chodesh prayer service to a new egalitarian section of the Kotel to be built in the area known as Robinson's Arch. A minority of WoW remains opposed to this compromise, seeing it not as a "compromise" but rather a surrender to Orthodox demands and a renouncement of WoW's very raison d'être. They thus want to continue praying in the women's section, in accordance with their legal right. Honestly, I can understand both sides.

Original photo by Gil Yohanan / Ynet
As I said in my previous post, we are dealing with a clash of two distinct visions for Israel as a society. And if all we do is push at one another, each side vying unyieldingly for its own self-interests without concern for the other, we will decrease the quality of life for everyone. Compromise is vital if we wish to be a strong Jewish people and a strong Israel.

What this compromise does is allow WoW to pray as they want, sing aloud - proudly and joyfully - without concern that it will disturb anyone, and in a space where no one will bother them, a space which is also part of the Western Wall (albeit in a section a bit further down). In addition, the new section will allow for egalitarian prayer, opening up new opportunities for other Jewish denominations, which the current setup at the Western Wall does not accommodate. It's a move for equality, only rather than shake up the existing space and force people into a change they don't want, it creates a new parallel space. That seems to me to be a very sound idea. Because at the end of the day, even if WoW is legally allowed to pray in the women's section, so too are others legally allowed to protest it. And who wants to live with protests month after month? It's not a healthy long-term situation.

On the other hand, when we refer to the "Kotel" we generally don't mean the entire Western Wall of the Temple Mount. We mean a specific portion of the Wall and plaza to which people the world over flock to pray. It's the place tourists come to, where national ceremonies are held, the place depicted on postcards and etched into people's hearts as the spiritual-geographical hub of the Jewish people. What the compromise says is that the Kotel is not the symbolic remnant of the "house of prayer for all nations," nor is it even a place where all Jews can come and pray in groups according to their customs. Rather, it's an "Orthodox space," and if you don't pray according to customs that they consider acceptable, you're relegated to a "side area." And even if this area is spacious and tastefully built, it's still not "the Kotel" which everyone thinks of and comes to. (Though, who knows, maybe someday the new area will be as well...)

Besides, WoW has won the legal right to pray in the women's section. If they don't actually pray there, what was really accomplished? What good is a right when it only exists "on paper," if it's not able to be exercised? I think these are strong arguments as well.

As I reflected on this internal division within WoW, it occurred to me that - come to think of it - this could be a very good thing. How so? Because I think everyone recognizes that there are benefits to the compromise, and also problems with the compromise - so a "split" might just provide the needed solution. Namely:

Let the large majority of WoW pray in the new egalitarian section, and let a small group continue to pray in the women's section.

A small group in the women's section won't produce nearly the kind of "volume" that would disturb the men on the other side. It can be low-key but meaningful, not attracting unwanted attention. And the majority praying in the egalitarian section could start the service whenever it works for them (as opposed to doing it early, at 7am), they can sing to their hearts' content, in good conscience that they're not disturbing anyone, and they can feel that by all counts they've gone over and above to act for peace.

Both the small group and the larger group, rather than being saddled with protests, can simply focus on spirituality, joy and sisterhood.

In effect, the small prayer quorum would be doing a "mishmeret," a guard duty of sorts, exercising - and thus preserving - their right to be in the women's section. And still, at the same time, the compromise agreement would be honored. So it really doesn't even need to constitute a "split." Each group can be recognized by the other as performing a valuable service as part of one and the same cause. Even further, it could be a monthly rotation of different women from WoW who do the mishmeret and daven in the women's section.

I think such an approach would also be a healthy energy to put out into the Jewish world. If both factions of WoW can see one another as providing a necessary piece of the puzzle, functioning in different but complementary capacities, maybe with a little time, effort and bridge-building, we can encourage Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews to look at one another the same way.

So, what do you think?

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Israel: Two Visions, One Wall

Continuing from the previous post, I posed a question about what kind of society we want to build in Israel. This wasn't a rhetorical question - it's something we need to put careful thought into. Because there are, as I see it, two distinct visions operating here. Let's call them "V1" and "V2." Sometimes they're spoken out explicitly, and other times they're implicit, operating beneath the surface. In either case, these visions motivate the way people think and act in relation to important issues, and I would say we'd be well-served to keep this in mind as we make our way forward.

V1 - One vision is of Israel as a traditionally religious Jewish society, based on the belief that this is what God wants for us, and indeed expects of us. It's a vision where the society is predominantly Jewish, both in terms of the population and in terms of Jewish commitment - i.e. observance of the mitzvot (commandments). It is an ideal which sees the Jewish State as a continuation of the Biblical and Second Temple eras, and as a transition to the Final Redemption - an era when the Third Temple will be rebuilt, the Sanhedrin restored, the Melech HaMashiach (king/messiah) anointed, and God's will realized for Israel and for all of humanity.

V2 - The second vision is of a Jewish State where Jews can have self-determination, cultural and religious self-expression, and security as a people, never again to be subject to the whims of anti-Semitic governments and pogroms. It is an opportunity to build a free and just society in our Biblical homeland. As the Israel Proclamation of Independence says:
"...The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations..."
That is not to say there's no overlap between these two visions - there definitely is. But there are also points - significant points, points which impact policy and life in Israel - where these visions diverge.

For example, many people who identify with the first vision (let's call them "V1ers") do place a value in the principles of freedom, justice and equality. Even if they don't always come out and say it explicitly, they certainly benefit from freedom of religious expression, living in a democratic society with laws protecting minorities and whose goal is to be just and fair, and equality insofar as being able to enter the political arena and see their interests represented.

However, what I perceive as the difference is that V1ers often view these principles not as ends but as means to ends. And so when they see these principles as posing a threat to their vision, that's where they draw the line.

Case and point: The Western Wall/Kotel. For those who hold freedom, justice and equality as the sacred principles which reign supreme (the basic position of "V2ers"), they would say that the Kotel - which is a public space, a national heritage site - must be open to all religious groups and all forms of prayer. Anything less would be unjust, unequal. But V1ers see the Kotel as representing their vision of a future Israel where the Law of the Torah is king, and all of the Jewish people are following God's commands, and so to allow what they perceive to be "foreign worship" at the Kotel is something akin to allowing an idol to be placed in the Holy of Holies of the Temple. So yes, while they may value equality, all other things being equal, here that's not the case. They feel that introducing what they see as non-traditional prayer at the Kotel is a direct threat to their vision. And maintaining the vision is without question more important than maintaining equality.

Now I just want to make a caveat here. I know that this is a generalization of both V1ers and V2ers. For many V1ers, the concern about Women of the Wall is not that they pose a threat to their vision - and in fact some may even say that non-traditional forms of worship could fall within the Divine plan. Their problem with WoW is instead that 1) they are making it difficult for Orthodox men to pray due to their singing, and/or 2) they are disturbing the peace rather than praying at a different location at the Kotel. Likewise, many V2ers are not "purists" about freedom and equality. They see there being a place to maintain "Jewishness" in the public sphere. Many I suspect would object for example to the Pope coming to conduct a mass at the Kotel. Point being, there are all kinds of shades and gradations of each vision. Still though, there is a question of which set of principles is the "higher" set. When push comes to shove, which trumps which?

So again, I'll leave you with a few questions:
  1. Where do you fall out on the V1 - V2 spectrum?
  2. How do you see a harmony/peace being made between these two visions, if at all?
  3. For practical purposes, how do we create policies with two competing visions operating?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

WoW and Equality in the Public Sphere

I'd like to follow up a piece I wrote in support of Women of the Wall (WoW), and try to think through aspects of this complex issue over the course of several posts. And I hope people will offer their comments to help add further depth, and to bring to light sides of the issue I haven't addressed.

Photo by Emil Salman / Ha'aretz
It seems to me that what's really at the heart of the WoW issue is the question of equality in the public sphere. Part of it relates to religious equality, and part to gender equality. First let's define what we mean when we say "public sphere." I assume we're talking both about matters of the State (the national government and regional/local municipalities) as well as parts of the private sector which are open to the public (e.g. matters of employment and consumer access). And regarding "equality," we're talking about equal access - to services, employment, and government representation. Again, not equality in the sense of sameness, not in the sense of equal numbers, but in the sense of access and opportunity. It's equivalent to saying that there should be no discrimination in the public sphere.

Again, I believe this is the primary issue, and that even though there are many other places where WoW might be concerned about discrimination taking place in the public sphere, they are focusing specifically on the Western Wall/Kotel. (Indeed WoW is affiliated ideologically - though not formally so far as I know - with IRAC, which deals regularly with many other forms of perceived discrimination).

The claim of discrimination might be described as follows: The Western Wall is a national heritage site, a public space under the auspices of the State of Israel. (The State officially controls the Kotel and adjacent plaza, although since 1988, it does so via an oversight body called the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.) Since the Kotel is a public, government-controlled space, WoW argues that it is necessary for all people - regardless of religious affiliation or gender - to have equal access to this space; otherwise it's discrimination. (At least that would be my understanding of their argument. If I'm putting words into anyone's mouths, please feel free to correct me!)

Now let's define "access." Because if you've been to the Kotel you know that anyone - regardless of religion, race, nationality, gender, etc. - can go to the Kotel. True, the men's section is larger than the women's section. True, it's a gender-separate space. But for the sake of focus let's leave those issues aside for the moment. All individuals have equal access to the Kotel itself, and in that sense there is no discrimination.

But let's get to the sticking points, the issues which we need to discuss in terms of whether they constitute discrimination. These include: 1) Individuals being denied entrance to the Kotel based on dress. 2) Groups (and in particular, prayer quorums) being denied access to the Kotel insofar as praying there as a group.

Regarding number one, perhaps there is a question about whether a requirement for "modest attire" in a public space constitutes discrimination. But again, let's leave that aside and focus specifically on the issues with which WoW is most concerned. I'm honestly not clear as to what the official law is at present, but there was - and may still be - a law prohibiting women from wearing a Tallit (prayer shawl) at the Western Wall. And it's argued that this is a form of discrimination - a combination of gender-based and religious-based discrimination.

As far as number two above, WoW is a women's prayer group, and they are calling for equal access in terms of conducting a prayer service in the manner they choose. Now it happens that WoW defends its prayer service as falling within the bounds of Halacha (Jewish Law). But it seems to me that this fact is unrelated to the question of discrimination. Even if they were self-stated as not following Halacha, and they were denied the ability to pray as a group in the manner they wanted, this would conceivably constitute discrimination. And for that matter, to deny any prayer group representing any religion access to the Kotel would also count as discrimination.

Okay - I know that long posts start to have diminishing returns in terms of keeping people's attention, so let me end with a few questions:
  1. Do points one and two above constitute discrimination?
  2. Are there other factors which mitigate/compete with discrimination - e.g. status quo arguments about current customs at the Kotel, or groups which either purposely or by no fault of their own create a public disturbance?
  3. Where do we draw the line regarding religious groups praying at the Kotel? Are we saying that the Pope should be able to come and conduct a mass at the Kotel? (I'm being serious, not facetious.)
  4. And if we decide that it's legal to favor a religious group or discriminate by gender in the public sphere (even in limited cases such as the Kotel), who gets to decide where that line is drawn?
  5. Do we want the State of Israel to be a place where there is equal access to both genders and all religions in the public sphere, or do we want it to be Jewish in some manner that could be called "traditional"? What direction do we want to head in?

Truth and Peace - A Balancing Act

Welcome one and all! Let's kick things off with a quote from the Talmud:
משה היה אומר יקוב הדין את ההר אבל אהרן אוהב שלום ורודף שלום
"Moshe used to say, 'Let the judgment/law pierce the mountain,' whereas Aharon loves peace and pursues peace." (Sanhedrin 6b)
Moshe is identified in the tradition with אמת ("truth") and his brother Aharon with שלום ("peace"). Two brothers, both working together, both a part of our "soul" as a people, yet coming from two very different orientations.

Truth and peace are both vital, but they're often difficult to fully express at the same time. Sometimes the desire to do what's "right" comes at the expense of peace. And sometimes the desire to keep the peace comes at the expense of what we ideally believe to be right and true. The question is, how do we know when to do which? We know that neither is expendable, and yet it seems like we're frequently having to sacrifice one to achieve the other.

I don't think there are any easy answers. And yet we have real-life issues which depend on which approach we take. So the best we can do, it seems to me, is just put in the work and try to hash it out, one issue at a time. That's what I'd like to do (at least in part) with this blog. Because even if on a given issue we believe the right thing to do is to come out strongly for truth, or strongly for peace, at the same time we might keep in mind the words of Zecharya the prophet: "Love truth and peace." The goal is to strive for both.