My colleague Rabbi Andy Bachman wrote about his first experience at Shira Hadasha over this past Shabbat. Andy focused on the large number of American Reform rabbis he noticed there, and wondered why these non-Orthodox rabbis (many of whom, I imagine, were in town for the Hartman Institute’s annual summer learning program for American rabbis) were drawn to a self-described Orthodox synagogue. “I thought of the collective hunger of my colleagues,” Andy writes. “I wondered if they’re spiritually lonely.  I wondered if for them, leading services back home is just another way of teaching; and so they justify the seeming separation between the selves that seek and the selves that enable the seeking of others through this duality.”

I don’t think this is limited to Reform rabbis–I think it’s true of American rabbis in general. Even in an Orthodox shul, where we like to think of ourselves as serving a more Jewishly-educated laity (a claim which I think is generally true, and one of the major attractions of Orthodoxy), most rabbis I know still feel “on,” performing a role. The Orthodox rabbis I know who attend Shira Hadasha while in Jerusalem report a similar sense of “vayinafash,” uplifting and renewal, as a result of the davenning experience there.

I went to Yakar for Shabbat morning this past week. In many ways I see Yakar as a precursor to Shira Hadasha: a place that has been singing beautiful, harmonious, slow melodies, creating the kind of musical aesthetic for which Shira Hadasha has become famous, for a generation. And they still have it: fabulous singing and harmony, a rich feeling of tefillah. (For davening snobs: they actually sang Shlomo Carlebach’s Mimkomcha–the one from the 1950s that he recorded on HaNeshama Lach–which you almost never hear anyone try, certainly not in the U.S. at any rate.) And at this point Yakar feels like a retreat from the tourist attraction that Shira Hadasha has in many ways become.

But I missed the sounds of women’s voices at Yakar. Though I know they were singing, the setup at Yakar–with a front-back mechitza dividing men from women–makes it hard for the men to hear the women (I don’t know how it is for the women). And aesthetically I felt something missing, which I identify as the thing that makes Shira Hadasha very special during its best moments: the actual feeling of a whole community, men and women, praying together. It’s not just that people know the words, that they know the tunes, that they can harmonize; it’s not only that they can keep themselves from clapping at the wrong times or letting the tempo get carried away. Those things describe Yakar as well as Shira Hadasha (and some other minyanim too). The difference at Shira Hadasha is that I can really feel the whole kehillah, the whole congregation.

Most of the students who have gone to Shira Hadasha this summer have focused on the experience of having women actively leading in parts of the service, which is an unusual sight in a shul with a mechitza. When they ask what I think, I tell them that I think the expansion of women’s roles is not the primary issue at Shira Hadasha, but that it acts along with and in service of the broader issue of offering our best tefillot, our deepest and richest communal prayer. To focus simply on when a woman is leading is to miss the point. The greater point is that Shira Hadasha, at its best (and there are moments when it falls short), creates a space for avodat Hashem, the service of God, that is uniquely inclusive, beautiful, and inspiring.


On Sunday evening our Bronfman fellows group concluded a day of touring the Old City of Jerusalem with dinner and conversation at the home of Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber. I had eaten at Prof. Sperber’s house once before, years ago, and had suggested this dinner during our faculty planning retreat in March. The visit immediately became a highlight of the trip.

As we sat at the Western Wall plaza and prepared to leave, I told the fellows about Prof. Sperber’s career as a philologist, scholar of Roman Palestine, and author of the eight-volume classic Minhagei Yisrael, “Customs of Israel.” I told them that he was awarded the Israel Prize, Israel’s highest honor for cultural and intellectual achievements, at the rather young age of 52. But most of all, I told them that as they imagined who they were meeting and where they were meeting him, to think of the character from the Harry Potter series, Albus Dumbledore. Like the Hogwarts headmaster, Prof. Sperber speaks with an English accent, exudes wisdom, maintains encyclopedic knowledge, and lives in a dynamic relationship with the past.

It was this last point, Prof. Sperber’s relationship with history, that ultimately made the greatest impression on everyone. Prof. Sperber began his remarks by talking about how he got into researching and teaching ancient Judaism in the first place. He said that his aim was to help his students (and his readers) appreciate that the characters of the Talmud were real people: they carried money, they wore clothing, they prepared food, they went to the bathroom, they slept and woke up and went about their day. And so his scholarly mission has been to bring to life the words of ancient texts by discovering the objects and practices they refer to.

But this is just the most well-known piece of the remarkably integrated persona of Prof. Sperber. Touring his library, one is struck by not only the number and eclecticism of the volumes, but most of all the interweaving of antique objects from bygone centuries: medieval spindles (yes, multiple) in one corner, ancient lamps in another. Over here maps from the early modern period, and over there the framed certificate of Prof. Sperber’s Israel Prize. Like the fictional Dumbledore’s office, there are nooks and crannies, knowledge tucked away in every corner. And after ascending a spiral staircase, you climb out through a hole in the wall and onto a magnificently simple balcony overlooking the entire Old City, with a clear view of the Temple Mount. It is a breathtaking place.

Prof. Sperber’s remarks to our group on Sunday night ultimately centered around his philosophy of halakha, which he argues must be dynamic. In contrast to the Haredi philosophy most famously espoused by Rabbi Moses Sofer (the Chatam Sofer) of hadash assur min haTorah–that which is new is prohibited by the Torah–Prof. Sperber pointed to the dictum of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook: hayashan yitchadesh, v’ha-chadash yitkadesh: The old will be renewed, and the new will be sanctified. This approach leads him, like Rav Kook, to call for maximum leniency within halakhic boundaries, in such areas as the heter mechira (sale of the land of Israel to enable agriculture during the sabbatical year) and increased roles for women in traditional prayer services among communities that seek such expansion.

What I had failed to appreciate previously is that all these elements of Prof. Sperber’s life–his academic work, his library, his philosophy and halakhic positions–are of a piece. Prof. Sperber has a truly dynamic relationship with history. He does not see it as something that lives separate and apart from him. Rather he lives in it. His library is a living museum; his halakha is a living halakha, trapped neither by the stultifying historicism that characterizes the Conservative movement to his left, nor the ossifying resistance to the present of the Haredism to his right. Prof. Sperber’s life, academic work, and philosophy of halakha are all manifestations of the same impulse: the courage, wisdom, and grace of a man who is fully at home in the world–past, present and future.

There’s a compelling piece in this morning’s eJewishPhilanthropy about the sad reality of how little Jews think of their rabbis. The writer, Adir Glick, refers to a survey by the Elijah Interfaith Institute (no link provided, unfortunately) that shows that Jews have the lowest opinion of their religious leadership among all world religions. Glick links this to Jews’ rejection of their own religious life and embrace of others, such as Buddhism.

What struck me the most in reading the article, however, was the way in which Glick contrasted rabbinic or religious leadership with secular leadership within the Jewish community: “Religious leaders are more than simply teachers, community organizers, or professors – they are spiritual shepherds,” he writes. He relates that at a conference in Israel he once saw “how a Burmese Buddhist monk stayed up late every night to teach Burmese foreign workers, who came from across Israel to sit on the grass and listen. I call this selflessness and dedication religious leadership.”

A little further on in the article, Glick asks, “where can we turn for spiritual and moral leadership, if not to our rabbis? Religious education is more than an academic pursuit.” [Emphasis added.]

Jews, according to Glick, have too-easily embraced the notion that our leaders are simply human. When we allow ourselves to have loftier conceptions of our leadership, we inevitably wind up being disappointed. For Glick, the recent story of Rabbi Mordechai Elon is proof of this. But the list could include any number of rabbis who have committed criminal acts, or, on a much lesser scale, simply let down their flocks by failing to be everything they wanted them to be. (more…)

Two weeks ago I had the great privilege of representing the Jewish tradition at the annual dinner of the Niagara Foundation, alongside Bishop Demetrius of the Chicago Greek Orthodox Church and Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, chairman of the Parliament of World Religions. We were asked to give short remarks about charity in each of our traditions. My speech is below.

The Particularities of Giving: Reflections on Tzedakah
Rabbi Josh Feigelson
Niagara Foundation Dinner
January 28, 2010

I must begin tonight by thanking the Niagara Foundation for the honor of speaking to you. When I was approached a few months ago about this opportunity, Hakan told me about the Foundation and about the dinner. He explained that the custom is to have a figure from Christianity, Islam, and Judaism speak. And he told me that Bishop Demetrius would be speaking, that Imam Abdul would be speaking—both of whom bear significant titles, and then he asked if I would represent Judaism. I must confess to feeling a bit hutzpadik, a bit presumptuous, in attempting to represent what John Goodman, in the movie The Big Lebowski, colorfully referred to as “Three thousand years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax.” But I will do my best.

There’s an old Jewish story that goes something like this: A rabbi was distressed at the lack of generosity among his congregants. So he prayed that the rich should give more charity to the poor.

“And has your prayer been answered?” asked his wife.

“Half of it was,” replied the rabbi. “The poor are willing to accept.”

Judaism of course mandates charity, between 10 and 20 percent of one’s annual income. But, significantly, the term we employ for our practice is not charity, based as it is in the Latin caritas, meaning love or affection. Our term is rather tzedakah, rooted in the word tzedek, which connotes righteousness or justice. To give in Jewish tradition is not an act of grace on the part of the giver to demonstrate love of one’s fellow—though we refer to our brethren as acheinu, our brothers. Rather giving tzedakah is fundamentally a fulfillment of a divine commandment, a mitzvah, to redress the inequities inherent in an unredeemed world.

In my short time with you tonight, I want to focus on one particularly modern aspect of tzedakah-giving, namely how we approach the question of tzedakah for Jewish causes, and tzedakah to support our non-Jewish neighbors. (more…)

As I think I’ve written before, one of the books I want to write is called “Letters to a Jewish Twenty-something.” A recent conversation with a former student now studying in Jerusalem for the year prompted me to write the next entry.

Dear Alex,

You asked me for guidance about your desire to write on Shabbat. While writing on Shabbat is formally prohibited as one of the 39 acts of labor forbidden by Jewish law, you brought up a few very important rationales for wanting to write:

1. You want to write in order to capture and reflect on some of the very meaningful, thought- and feeling-provoking experiences you have on Shabbat, particularly this year as you study in Jerusalem;
2. While you appreciate living a halakhic lifestyle as a way of engaging with the rich tradition of the Jewish people, you don’t believe that halakha is actually the word of God as expressed through the Rabbis;
3. Given both of the previous points, it would seem to make a lot of sense to allow yourself to write on Shabbat as a means of deepening your spiritual experience–or, in a formulation I would prefer, deepen your dialogue with the enduring story of the Jewish people.

I responded in our conversation that you are asking a very powerful question, one that goes to the heart of the predicament of Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy today: Do you follow the formal letter of the law, even at the expense of deeper spiritual fulfillment and self-actualization? Or do you massage the contours of the law, in order to enable a more profound spirituality? Do you see the law as absolutely binding, even when it comes at the expense of a higher good? (Philosophers would call this a deontological position.) Or is the law only good when it fulfills the higher purpose in which you understand it is rooted, in which case your behavior should follow the purpose, and not the law? (A consequentialist approach.)

As I told you, my own feeling is that, though I have a great deal of sympathy for the consequentialist impulse–that is, to adjust our practice according to the purposes we understand it should be aligned with–and while I have a big problem the idea of deontological ethics–that is, behavior dicated solely by duty, and not by conscience–I still wouldn’t write on Shabbat, even if it was for your noble purpose of a greater sense of communion with the Holy One and Am Yisrael.

I can identify two main reasons for this. First, as I told you, one of the great advantages of halakha is that you don’t have to constantly evaluate your practice against your own subjective impulses. Halakha gives you a strong frame in which to live your life, and in giving over some of the decision-making to halakha, I think you ultimately create space in your life to be a better oved Hashem, a servant of God. The minute you start to cross that line, however well-intentioned the crossing, the frame ceases to be solid. Granted, one can reasonably argue that in our world of choice, every time one acts according to halakha, one is making an active choice. But in my experience, that’s not the case within a shomer mitzvot community. Yes, people frequently negotiate their observance, but there still remains an identifiable communal norm of behavior. Jews who keep halakha simply don’t write on Shabbos. When you begin to write, you may well be a very good Jew, but you have entered a space where you assume all responsibility for your halakhic decision-making, and I think that will lead to greater anxiety and difficulty down the road.

Second, and related to the first point, I don’t think one has to believe that halakha as codified in the Shulchan Arukh is dvar Hashem in order to be a God-fearing Orthodox Jew. One can approach halakha as what political philsophers might call a weak ontology–in the words of Stephen White, “Strong beliefs, weakly held.” The idea here is that halakha can be something we feel quite committed to, while still having a modern’s awareness that it may well not be the word of God, that it is the work of human beings. The community of people who live their lives in deep dialogue with halakha–the community of shomrei mitzvot throughout time–evolves and grows as an organism. We can argue about the pace of that change and whether the organism is healthy (I think it generally is), but the key point is that our relationship with the organism is paramount, not whether we believe that halakha comes from the mouth of God. In this respect, my approach has resonance with the idea of second naivete found in writers like Paul Ricouer–that is, we can approach our lives with a modern, self-critical, modest point of view, and yet still have deep commitments and a deep relationship with the Creator, which comes about through the awe and wonder we experience as briot, creations in the world, and in Torah, the ritual and ethical discipline we practice that connects us with God and one another in past, present and future.

What I am describing is essentially the project of modern or open Orthodoxy today, in my view. It is the attempt to live a life fully in dialogue with the enduring story of the people of Israel–Torah in its fullest understanding–in a post-modern age. It is a big project, and one that I myself am not sure I’m up to. I do not always rise to the level of these aspirations. But I try.

So finally, in answer to your question about writing on Shabbat, I would say that I think–I know–that God wants you to be struck with awe and wonder and gratitude at the world, and your life in it. I know God wants you to express that. And I also know that not writing on Shabbat is a discipline with ancient roots, that there have been spiritual seekers in every generation who have wrestled with how best to elaborate the memories of a Shabbat afternoon. My strong guess is that there are some deep spritual souls in the Holy City who can help you to find ways of remembering, rearticulating, and recreating your spiritual journey, and that those methods will be even more lasting and significant than writing. Before you take on the yoke of making your own halakha, I think you should explore all of the wisdom within it.



As the person who forwarded this piece to me said in her email, “You likely don’t read the Jewish Press, but I thought you’d be interested in this.” True. (An old joke comes to mind about reading the Jewish Press in the bathroom… but I digress.)

It turns out that one of my more widely-read posts in recent months was this one some months back on Tova Hartman’s visit to NU, which took place when all the sh-t was hitting the fan about Sara Hurwitz’s non-ordination as an Orthodox rabbi. So there seems to be some interest among ye gentle readers about this topic. Good.

So on to today’s post: Rabbi Michael Broyde, a serious halakhic thinker and authority and former head of the Beit Din of America, writes a pretty darn good essay in the Jewish Press. Aside from his little dig at my teacher, Rabbi Avi Weiss, I applaud him for this article. As a good friend of mine pointed out back when all the stuff was happening with Sara, why is it that everyone evidently expects YCT’s folks to do something like this, but no one is asking what YU and the rest of the orthodox community are doing? (This was largely in response to Jonathan Mark’s angry rant about Rabbi Weiss’s capitulation in not calling Sara a rabbi.)

Broyde is essentially making the same move: Why shouldn’t we be demanding of “centrist” Orthodox institutions–institutions that train women in advanced Talmud study, Jewish law, philosophy, etc.–that they create a clerical role for these women? Fine, don’t call them rabbis. As Sara Hurwitz well knows, she cannot lead services from the bima (though a major Orthodox rabbi here in Chicago has recently publicly stated that he sees no reason why not) and cannot serve as a witness in most halakhic matters. But Sara can teach Torah, counsel, and answer halakhic questions just like the rest of us–and probably better than many men who have lousy voices or poor synagogue skills, and who might be illegitimate witnesses for other reasons (see the “rabbis” arrested yesterday for a case in point).

Essentially Rabbi Broyde is saying that the real revolution already happened, and that came when women were given equal access to learning as men. All the rest is commentary–important commentary, but commentary nonetheless. Go and learn.

It struck me as wonderful timing that while the Modern Orthodox world is abuzz with the news of Sara Hurwitz’s impending non-ordination as a rabbi, Tova Hartman, a founder of the Shira Hadasha minyan in Jerusalem, is here at Northwestern for a guest lectureship. She spoke to a group of students at Hillel last night, and will deliver a public lecture this evening.

As Dr. Hartman (she prefers to be called Tova) pointed out, the big change of Shira Hadasha had much less to do with women getting called up to the Torah or participating in other ways in an Orthodox prayer service, than in opening the process of decision-making to women and men in an Orthodox environment. From a textual standpoint, the greatest innovation in the last hundred years in terms of women’s place in Judaism has been the opening of high-level scholarship to them, which was completely forbidden before the twentieth century, and even now remains off-limits within Haredi communities.

Yet we don’t tend to focus on that. Our lines of division–between Orthodox and non-Orthodox, between Haredi/Centrist and Modern Ortho–all seem to revolve around how much women are visible or invisible within the synagogue. And this is probably  because, as Tova put it last night, the synagogue is where most people live the bulk of their religious lives–even in Orthodox circles. Even though every denomination of Judaism makes serious ethical claims that apply throughout the day, week, and year; even though every denomination of Judaism makes demands on family and home life; even though every denomination of Judaism advocates for text study–despite all of this, the synagogue remains the defining space for religious identity. And so, while women’s access to Torah learning is the real revolution within Orthodox Judaism, the big fights are over the symbols of access in the synagogue: aliyot, leading services, counting in the minyan, serving as president, and serving as the rabbi.

For me, the decision to be Orthodox was not one I made because of my views on gender egalitarianism. If that were my criterion, I probably would have gone to a different rabbinic school. What Orthodoxy inspires me with is its devotion to the rigorous study and application of Jewish law, and its preservation of the value of talmud Torah keneged kulam: Torah study outweighs all other pursuits. I saw how hard my friends at more liberal schools had to work to get the intensive kind of text education I wanted, and that was really what pushed me into my Orthodox commitment. That came at a price with regard to my views on gender, but it was a price I was willing to pay.

One of the ironies of Tova Hartman’s talk last night, to me anyway, was the fact that for her, the creation of Shira Hadasha is in some profound ways an aesthetic exercise. Because there is no professional associated with the shul, and thus no one’s livelihood is on the line, and because there are a gazillion other Orthodox prayer options in her neighborhood of Jerusalem, she feels perfectly fine letting attacks against Shira Hadasha’s Orthodox bona fides go unanswered. Like me, she believes that this is one path, and she’s not prescribing it for everyone. Yet here in America, people’s livelihoods are on the line: Plenty of people already make spurious and ignorant comments about YCT graduates, to the detriment of the ability of some of the job prospects of some of my fellow musmachim. Those within the YCT community who are pressuring Rabbi Weiss not to call Sara a Rabbi are right that their livelihoods may well be affected. (Never mind, btw, that many of these same people were willing to sacrifice the livelihoods of workers in Postville for another moral/halakhic crusade.)

The irony comes in the comment of my teacher, Rabbi Levi Lauer, that I’m fond of quoting. In trying to convince me to make aliyah, Levi said, “Zionism makes mincemeat out of aesthetics.” In other words, because the Zionist project involves putting your body to work and your life on the line for the sake of your Jewish identity, it transforms Jewishness into a meaningful non-aesthetic category. Yet in this case, it is the reverse: the Diaspora makes aesthetic concerns charged with urgency, at least when you’re a Jewish professional.

Perhaps it’s time to be thinking about aliyah again.

The Torah portion of Mishpatim represents a striking change from everything we have read in the Torah up until this point. With few exceptions, the Torah up until now has focused exclusively on telling a story. But beginning with Parshat Mishpatim, the Torah will begin to focus on law. In fact, there are no less than 55 different laws related in this Torah portion, with entire sections of the Talmud based on the verses we read this week.

This focus on law is one of the key distinguishing features of Judaism. (Parenthetically, it is one of the things that makes Judaism more akin to Islam than to Christianity, as both Judaism and Islam create widely-deployed legal systems–halakha and sharia, respectively–through textual exegesis.) Even among those movements within Judaism that reject a strict approach to halakha, the emphasis on legal thinking remains important.

Why law?

The short answer is that Judaism holds that details matter. It’s not enough to have good intentions. Rather, according to the Torah, our actions are ultimately more important. While good intentions can help to mitigate the severity of bad actions, in the end it’s the deed, and not the thought, that counts.

But more than this, law is the mechanism by which we make our beliefs real. Just last week we read about the Revelation at Sinai. The encounter with God is perhaps the show-stopping scene in the entire Torah. And yet we don’t stop the show there. We keep reading, because it’s not enough for us simply to have had an experience of the divine. The Torah mandates that we take the energy and power of that moment and repair and redeem the world. That’s work. It means being meticulous and thorough in all aspects of our lives, something brought about through a legal system.

We don’t always measure up, of course. For me this week, like any week, has involved apologies for ways in which I failed to perfect the details. Yet the Torah’s point in this effusion of law just after the theophany at Sinai is to inspire us to keep going, to always seek improvement in the minutia of our daily actions. Through that thoroughness we can bring about a repaired and redeemed world.

Shabbat shalom.