Culture, Identity, Israel, Mishegas, Religion

The legacies we leave

The following is a sermon I delivered to my congregation last week for Parashat Vay’ḥi on the travesties in Beit Shemesh and Mea She’arim — a little late, but still important.
The Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines legacy as: a gift by will or something which is transmitted by or received from an ancestor. It is especially interesting to me that the word choice of the Mirriam-Webster dictionary is to use the language of transmission because the Hebrew word we use for tradition, מסורה, literally means ‘transmission.’ This idea, of something which is transmitted by an ancestor, is incredibly significant to the Jewish tradition. It is significant, mainly, because we take immense pride in our tradition and we take immense pride in the success we have had in passing down our traditions from generation to generation. This pride we take in transmitting our traditions is not new, quite the contrary, it goes back to our very foundation and to our very origins. Sure enough, when we received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai we were instructed, as we read daily in the words of the first paragraph of the Shema, וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ, וְדִבַּרְתָּ בָּם – and you shall teach these words to your children and you shall speak about them. Now, that is truly significant, but it goes even deeper into our origins than our covenant with God at Mount Sinai, rather it goes to our very first foundations, to Avraham Avinu, to Abraham our Forefather, of whom the Torah tells us לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה – such that Avraham commands his children and his household after him and they will guard the way of God. What we impart to our children, what we transmit to them, the legacy which we leave them, is a huge part of the Jewish tradition.
What is arguably the most important Mishnah in understanding the Rabbinic tradition, we learn in the first Mishnah of Pirkei Avot:

משה קיבל תורה מסיניי, ומסרה ליהושוע
Moshe received Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Yehoshua…

Why would I say this is the most important Mishnah to understand the Rabbinic tradition? The first chapter of Pirkei Avot lists generations of rabbis receiving wisdom from the previous generation and imparting it to the next. Therefore, the chain of transmission described in the first chapter of Pirkei Avot sets forth the idea of why it is the Rabbis interpretations are understood as expressing God’s will for the Jewish people – since each generation learned from the past the chain can be traced back to Moshe Rabbeinu receiving the Torah face to face from God on Mount Sinai, and this is why I would claim that the first Mishnah of Pirkei Avot is the most important, because it traces the transmission from Moshe on Mount Sinai through Yehoshua, the Elders, the prophets and the Great Assembly and on through the generations.
So we can see, based on the framework set up by this Mishnah, that the Jewish tradition survives and thrives by virtue of the transmission of tradition from one generation to the next. This idea is solidified even further in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vay’ḥi, in which we read of the death of Yaakov and Yosef, however before that we read a very special section of the book of Genesis, a passage known as brikat ya’akov, the Blessing of Jacob. While this passage is referred to as a blessing, if you read the passage closely you will find that most of the sons do not receive what you or I may call a blessing. However, whether positive or not, what is clear is that Yaakov is imparting something to his sons – a sort of early ethical will. Yet, whether we desire more positivity and actual blessing in Yaakov’s words, what we really have to learn from this is that Yaakov is teaching something to his children. He is transmitting a tradition to them; and by doing so he is teaching them something.
And I’m sure you can tell by now, since I mention it relatively frequently, how important it is, I believe, to be very clear in the values we impart and transmit to our children. And this is why what is transpiring today in the public battle between religious extremists and contemporary society raging on the streets in Israel hits me so hard.
Around the time of the French Revolution, Jews began to be integrated as citizens in their host countries in Central Europe, including Germany. As a means to integrate themselves more fully into German society, groups of Jews, primarily in Hamburg and Berlin, began to formulate a new approach to the Jewish tradition by emphasizing history and ethics over religiosity and by conducting religious services in the local language and using local and contemporary musical arrangements. This wave of Jewish innovation became known years later as the Reform Movement. This “new” form of Judaism spread throughout many parts of Central Europe. As it spread, those dedicated to traditional Jewish practice and custom felt attacked and responded in term. This fight was most prominently adopted by Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, also known as Rabbi Moshe Sofer, known even more commonly by the title of his book, Ḥiddushei Torat Moshe Sofer, or Ḥatam Sofer. In 1806 the Ḥatam Sofer became the leading rabbinic authority in the town of Bratislava in Austrio-Hungary. The Ḥatam Sofer saw a huge threat to Judaism and the Jewish people in the Reform Movement, and he dedicated the last three decades of his life to fighting it from spreading. He forbade contemporary music to be performed in synagogues in Bratislava and was eventually compelled to coin what became the battle cry in opposition to Reform Judaism, כל חדש אסור מן התורה, all innovation is forbidden by the Torah.
Since that point in the mid-19th century, what became known as Orthodox Judaism has been hallmarked by a rejection of what they see as innovation – never mind that Orthodox Judaism as we know it today is precisely that, an innovation. Now, let’s jump ahead from 19th century Hungary to 21st century Israel. There is a town outside of Jerusalem known as Beit Shemesh. This town has been relatively unknown to the greater world until a few weeks ago. Beit Shemesh has a growing religious community populated by what are known as Ḥaredim, what some call “Ultra-Orthodox” Jews, and a growing number of Modern Orthodox American immigrants. Around three years ago, as the religious population of Beit Shemesh continued to grow and diversify with the growth of the Modern Orthodox community, a group of extremists began posting signs demanding that women walk on one particular side of the street. Over the course of the few years, tensions rose and eventually a group of men from this extremist minority took it upon themselves to become modesty police. Meanwhile, the Modern Orthodox community had been coordinating with city officials to open a school for girls. Things got so out of hand in Beit Shemesh that a few months ago, these extremists went so far as to harass girls as young as 8 years old, calling them whores and spitting on them. As this story was picked up by Israeli and international news outlets around November, outrage increased against this extremist group and the Israeli police eventually came in to remove the signs not sanctioned by the city. As is often the case in such incidents, the media portrayal of the events grouped in mainstream Ultra-Orthodox Jews with this extremist group who truthfully do constitute an extremely small minority.
Yet, as a result of trying to remove this sign relegating women to a particular side of the street, the police officers were physically assaulted, spat on and called “Nazis.” This led to a media frenzy in and out of Israel which is nothing short of a complete embarrassment for the Jewish people. If matters could not get worse, extremists in the religious neighborhood of Jerusalem known as Mea She’arim, staged a protest against what they call anti-Ḥaredi bias in Israeli society. Never mind that it is simple obscene and ridiculous for Jews to be claiming that the State of Israel is repressive against Judaism – and, mind you, if any Jews in Israel have a right to claim repression by the hands of the State, it would be Conservative, Reform and other non-Orthodox Jews – never mind that there claims were completely outlandish; their protest was the very definition of a shonde, a disgrace. These so-called pious men dressed up in striped uniforms and attached yellow stars with the word “Juden” written on them; what is worse, and it can get worse, is that they dressed up their children like this. I do not need to be any more specific about which image they were trying to invoke.
This is an assault on the memory of the victims of the Shoah, it is an affront to anything sacred and holy and in attempting to shed light on a very real problem in Israel – that of sinat ḥinam, senseless hatred between Jews – these extremists, by choosing this style of protest, have not only shown contempt for the whole Jewish people and all of Jewish history, they have inspired unbridled hatred against themselves thereby doing more to spread sinat ḥinam than combat it. All of this is so much more upsetting when viewed in the greater context of the history of inter-Jewish relations since the Ḥatam Sofer took up his fight against what he called “forbidden innovation.” To use the words of Elie Wiesel, the world-famous scholar and survivor of Buchenwald and Auschwitz, as he put it this was a “vile sight.” And it is, if you see the pictures of these men, it is nothing short of vile and enraging and I would go so far to say that actions such as this absolutely qualify as a ḥillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. Wiesel went on to aptly describe this travesty as “spiritually poisoning” the children of these extremists. And that is where the real issue with this problem is – if these men want to traipse around looking ridiculous and embarrassing themselves that’s their business. They may think they’re speaking in the name of Judaism, but an overwhelming majority of Jews find them completely ridiculous. But when they involve their children in their obscenity, when they teach such values to the next generation, Wiesel’s words are the perfect ones to describe what they are doing – they are “spiritually poisoning” their children and by doing so they are desecrating the memory of those who perished in our most devastating tragedy, they are desecrating the honor of the Jewish people and they are desecrating and transgressing against the Torah.
Whatever it was that caused strife for the Ḥatam Sofer, and I do have to say I can appreciate the fear he felt, extremists such as these men in Mea She’arim and Beit Shemesh have taken the statement of the Ḥatam Sofer, that all innovation is forbidden by the Torah, to levels that have placed them so far on the fringe of the Jewish people that, as I said, they themselves ARE an innovation. And here is, in my opinion, the two lessons I take away from this type of incident: First, we should feel motivated and inspired to be proud of our connection to Conservative Judaism, we should continue to learn about and understand its inspiration and premise and we should live by its teachings and standards.
Toward that end, I would like to encourage everyone to support Masorti Olami, the wing of the Conservative Movement outside of North America by making charitable contributions and visiting Masorti synagogues abroad; the second lesson, and I think the more important lesson, is to know in our hearts that there is no one group that has a monopoly on authentic Judaism. Rather, the Jewish people have historically and continuously always grouped themselves with other like-minded individuals. Whether this was Koraḥ and his partners in revolting against Moshe’s authoritarian rule, the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots and Essenes of the 1st century, the Rabbinic Jews and Karaites of the Middle Ages, or the array of movement-based denominations we have today, there has never been just one voice to Judaism. I, for one, would rather leave my children the legacy of a diverse and vibrant Judaism that is dedicated to peace, justice, love and kindness as dictated by the Torah, Talmud and generations of Jewish thought, than a Judaism dictated by the extremist ilk that have abused Jewish memory and, to again borrow Wiesel’s words, “spiritually poisoned” their children.
Let us acknowledge that these shameful extremists certainly do not represent the Jewish religion as a whole, nor do they represent typical mainstream Ultra-Orthodoxy. Let us, in our communities, be emboldened to celebrate our Jewish heritage and practice our traditions and customs from a place of authenticity and pride. May we be blessed to see a day, speedily in our time, where the Jewish people can respect one another and allow the variant expressions of our religion to be celebrated rather than demonized and may we see a day where children are safe from the abuses such as the school-girls attacked on the streets of Beit Shemesh or the misguidance of the parents in Mea She’arim in Jerusalem.
May we most of all be blessed to leave behind a legacy to our children worthy of Jewish history, tradition and belief so that we may see an end to separatism, partisan division and discord in the State of Israel and in the whole Jewish world and let us say: Amen.

12 thoughts on “The legacies we leave

  1. I like this. I think we need all the flavors of Judaism to thrive, but just like in America, some in Israel seem to think that “freedom from freedom of religion” is freedom of religion.
    The Christians get—what is it—nine different millets/established churches in Israel? No Christian is Israel is required to be Roman Catholic or Anglican or Greek or Armenian. But in the Jewish state, Jews are more or less required to be subject to Haredi innovations as you properly called them.
    So, I say, give the non-orthodox streams a rabbinate of their own. If the orthodox want to cooperate, fine. If not, fine. At least for purposes of conversion, status, marriage and divorce, this is pretty much the only thing to do.
    Even just someone submitting a bill like this in the Knesset might produce some negotiations.
    Yes, it is terrible to make any such schism “official,” but whether it is recognized de jure, it is true de facto for almost 200 years.

  2. No country should live under authoritarian law- whether it’s a political fascist or religious ideal. Religious ideals cannot trump the needs and beliefs of people in Israel or anywhere. When a political debate ventures into areas where certain laws are justified by religious custom or belief an authority is presented that muffles the needs of people. In politics it is necessary to compromise but with Mesora or Halacha rabbinical authority is favored- these are not compatible. Thank you Justin for your thoughtful criticism of this nasty fundamentalism.

  3. by the way כל חדש אסור מן התורה isn’t quite coined by him – it’s actually a deliberate misunderstanding of an actual Torah verse. Rav Kook was known to have been very sarcastic about this… I wish I could remember the story exactly…

  4. I suppose you’re right, KRG, in that he borrowed the phrase from the gemara which bases its statement from the torah prohibition against new grains (hadash) during the omer period between passover and shavuot. the pun from rav kook you refer to is “ha’yashan yithadesh, v’ha-hadash yitkadesh – the old will become new and the new will be sanctified” but to go into that detail in a sermon i feared would be too much for people to follow the train of thought since my usage of the hatam sofer was tertiary and used simply as a means to describe how orthodoxy became a reactionary movement and it seems to me that his usage of this term as applied to the reform movement, anthropologically, has a good deal to do with it; so i felt comfortable saying he coined the term in that he coined it for that usage. but you’re right, the phrase itself is not his original making.

  5. While I too am bothered by the demonstrations and the destructiveness of the knoiim in Eretz-Yisroel, the author leaves out the reason that knoiim are using the Holocaust to further their agenda, mainly the violation of the Three Oaths. one cannot fully understand the nature of the demonstrations without knowing that the context is more complex than alleged “anti-Ḥaredi bias in Israeli society”. now that said, not all people that believe that the Three Oaths were violated feel that this is an appropriate form of protest.

    a separate point has to do with the notion of extremism, how it is measured and in what contexts it is found. surely looking at todays Jewish world population, reactionary Charedism is an extreme form of Jewish practice, one not shared or even approximated by world Jewry. the question for me is what separates “mainstream ultra-orthodox” from what the author labels “extremists”? is it their actions on the street? the “mainstream” may very well believe much of what the extremists believe, but as long as its in their hearts and not in the street, is it okay?
    in the context of mitzvahs, clearly there are levels of extremism too, however this extremism should not be measured with regard to population, simply because most Jews don’t know the mitzvahs (that is to say that population cannot be “polled” to determine halacha).
    Just as spitting on an 8-year old is an abominable extreme interpretation of the torah’s mitzvahs regarding modesty, so it would appear that openly desecrating the Sabbath is too an extreme, one that the reforming movements referenced in the blog post have placed their approval on (The Conservative Movement in America, for one, controversially still allows driving to shul on the Sabbath)
    Looking at the wider Jewish population, one can remark that its great that these reforming movements are attracting people to embrace their Jewishness in someway, however the point remains that extremism has many faces and contexts and is thriving not only on the streets of Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem, but among the Jewish people’s majority as well.

  6. yes, Wolf, the Conservative Movement grappling with the suburbanizaion of the Jewish population and providing a reasonable way for them to attend their synagogues by driving in automobiles is just like calling an 8 year old girl a whore and spitting on her.
    In terms of the Three Oaths, all three have been broken — two have been broken by the modern state of Israel and the third by most of the world. But that the Three Oaths were broken does not, as you say yourself, give credence to this despicable show which was put on in Mea She’arim.
    In terms of violation of Shabbos, you seem to be a pretty learned individual, so I would point you to the teshuvah written by Rav Ovadia Yosef who claims that since most Jewish people live in a secular society, b’farhesia (public) becomes b’tzina (private) because we (shabbos observant Jews) are on their (secular Jews) turf and therefore one who is m’halel shabbat (desecrating the sabbath) publicly, in our modern context, is usually not l’hakhis (out of spite), therefore even non-observant Jews should be given honors in a synagogue. None of this is to even speak of that fact that many Jews who go to Orthodox shuls in the US drive and park a few blocks away which absolutely constitutes g’neivat da’at (theft of mind) in the hopes of preserving ma’arat ayin (appearance of impropriety).
    In terms of making a distinction between mainstream and fringe haredim — there are many people who live by haredi custom who do not inflict it on others, I do believe there is a difference between personal extremism and extremism inflicted on others. and I wholeheartedly reject your premise that moderate approaches to halakhah in a contemporary context is a form of extremism — that argument is filled with logical problems not to mention it is completely intellectually dishonest.

  7. Thank you for your response. What I was getting at in my paragraph “Just as…”, was looking at the issue through the lens of mitzvahs bein adam l’mokum. from this perspective, what is the difference between the two hillul hashems? i am asking not as a point of debate, but rather because i am seeking to better understand. from the perspective of bein adam l’chaveiro, surely the spitting is more despicable. transgressions bein adam l’chaveiro would seemingly always be more potent, because we can see them or hear about them and they get at our core as people. what i am trying to understand, and hoping that you can help me with, is how halacha, which is dealing with both mitzvahs bein adam l’chaveiro and mitzvahs adam l’mokum, categorizes such events. then it would be easier to for me to revisit the thought that i forwarded last night that extremism has many faces.

  8. your comment begs the question that driving on shabbat IS a hillul hashem, or that being m’halel shabbat is a hillul hashem — these two things are not equitable by any measure, nor am I comfortable with the theological implications that being m’halel shabbat is a hillul hashem. I have never once encountered in any of my learning of either hz”l, rishonim or aharonim equating m’halel shabbat with a hillul hashem, so let us be very careful with our words.
    i am also uncomfortable with the notion that haredi Judaism has a monopoly on defining ratzon hashem, in fact, I am very confident that by no means do they represent authentic Jewish practice by any accord.
    from the Torah through the tannaim, amoraim, geonim, rishonim and any aharon worth their salt, the overwhelming call of Judaism is to be just to our fellow human. Sota 14a frames this very nicely, so making a distinction between mitzvot bein adam l’haveiro and bein adam la’makom is a false dichotomy. bring cruel to our fellow humans IS a hillul hashem, in other words.

  9. the idea that machalel shabbos is a chilul hashem, comes from that which a sin done in the public is a chulul hashem. if you hold by Ovadia, then sure, public is private and thus is not a chilul hashem, however I am not sure I feel that Ovadia is valid for our conversation. if you could send me a link to his tshuvah i would appreciate it. without having it in front of me, I assume he is talking about Israel, a land with a secular Jewish majority. however in other parts of the world we are on the “turf” as it were, of non-Jews, so I am not sure it fully applies. seemingly the non-observant Jew would be sinning unknowingly, as opposed to desecrating hashem. one, however would be going about a chilul hashem if knowingly and publicly desecrating the shabbos. in the context of our conversation, which has come to focus on the Conservative movement, the notion that driving on shabbos is machalel shabbos, does not stem from the charedi tradition, but rather from the diverse Jewish tradition that preceded both charedism and cars. for thousands of years Jews have both observed and innovated sabbath practice, while staying in a context of observance that satisfies the torah.
    i am not saying there is no place for institutions that service and provide spiritually for the spread out and sub-urbanized Jewish populace, I am just saying that placing a stamp of approval on a practice that is far removed from the torah is an example of an extreme tendency found on the “other end” of today’s Jewish spectrum. Other examples of reforming-extremist positions abound in the Reform movement to a much more tangible degree.

    it is interesting that you bring up sotah 14. i was just reading in dubnow’s history of chassidism, the way in which this principle got lost among chassidim. the concept of dvekuth was believed by early chassidim to be the internalization of such midoth as “just as He clothes the naked, so shall you cloth the naked”. however as chassidism became more entranced by otherworldly mysticism dubnow observes that dvekuth takes on a new meaning, that instead of cleaving to god through imitation, one cleave directly through prayer and thought alone. in keeping with this move towards mysticism and away from this world, dubnow notes that chassidism in fact does begin to place more emphasis on mitzvahs bein adam l’mokum, assigning mitzvahs bein adam l’chaveiro a secondary position. once, again, i am not agreeing with such a philosophy, but rather presenting it as entering Jewish tradition in a way that has continued to effect the world we live in today.

    yes, you are right to say that being just, or compassionate as my translation has it, is a case in which the mitzvah falls in both categories insofar as we are imitating god. we were always in agreement that spitting on that girl was a chilul hashem.
    the remaining questions are two (1) is my understanding of chilul hashem regarding public sin wrong and why? (2) if it is not, is there a hierarchy of hilul hashems? (3) in addition i would like further proof that my premise that “moderate approaches to halakhah in a contemporary context is a form of extremism” is intellectually dishonest. you admit the existence of personal extremism, what does extremism mean to you? is it only found among the charedi kanoiim? for me extremism in the jewish torah context is a radical reworking of understanding that breaks from the chalachic tradition. for me looking at the historical context of Jewish tradition (and removing ourselves completely from the conversation on modesty), placing the shul attendance on shabbos above the laws of the sabbath itself appears extreme, just as allowing the individual to decide what constitutes malacha, seems extreme.
    or perhaps we are just moving through an extreme time of change so all extremes, excluding the morally heinous are mevatel…

  10. 1) I do believe that you are wrong about public “sin” being hillul hashem because most poskim that I have encountered feel that intention is key — in other words, is it l’hakhis. If it is out of spite, i.e., eating pork in front of a shul on yom kippur, it is different than if it is not l’hakhis. 2) I can’t answer that, but I think it is a term we should not just toss around. 3) because it ignores the trajectory and evolution of halakhah and the halakhic process. it ignores mahloket, it ignores svarei yahid, it ignores what the halakhic system is and always has been. the fact is there is no “halakhic tradition,” there is a process by which different poskim have come to different conclusions. the fact that the origins of Jewish law predate automobiles does not make automobiles assur… i happen to agree with you in many ways that observing shabbos is more important than attending shul, but it is also assur to make halakhot that people won’t live by or won’t be able to live by, so, as you said, the main motivation behind the “driving teshuvah” (which almost everybody misunderstands) was to help people have access to shul and torah learning. extremist? hardly.
    in terms of getting you a link to rav yosef’s teshuvah, i don’t know if it’s online, but I’m looking for the source and if I can’t find you a link I’ll at least give you the reference.

  11. I cannot locate an online link, but the source is:
    שו”ת מלמד להועיל חלק א (או”ח) סימן כט

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