Women and Halachic change – Can vs. Should

We can do itTo what degree, if at all, should Halacha change to reflect the change in women’s status in society? My approach to the subject has fluctuated over the years as I was exposed to a range of opinions and perspectives. It has been one of those “thought journeys” that have accompanied me for many years and in the (not too short) following piece, I will attempt to formalize it.

I will start with what is, for me, an important foundation to the discussion. I have tremendous trust in our tradition, in our history and in our communal identity, three things I believe to be one in the same. I do not believe that one can separate between who we are as a people – our communal identity – and the traditions, laws, customs, practices and even methodologies that have been part of our communal life for so long. Because of this great respect and trust I have for our tradition, my base assumption is that tremendous care needs to be taken when considering changes that represent, or can cause, changes to this identity. This means that my fundamental approach to formalized, communal change in these matters is, from the onset, one of extreme care and the default is – and should remain – the situation as it has been for centuries. I trust that if a norm or standard have been part of our national/communal identity for so long, there is a good reason for it and that it is very risky to fiddle with it. In other words, I like thinking of myself as an extreme traditionalist. By no means does this always result in an approach of saying “no” or always being more stringent. Many examples exist throughout Halachic literature demonstrating that “keeping things as they are”, can result in leniency; Eruv, Hash’haya on Shabbat and making Kiddush on a shot-glass, to name some better known examples. A good example, from my own personal life, can be found here (chapter 1) and there are many such examples in Halachic literature.

Based on this introduction, I’d suggest that when discussing the question of institutionalized Halachic change, the Halachic question is only one of several which needs to be considered, namely:

  1. Can it change?
  2. Should it change?
  3. What will be the price of the change?

‘Can it change’ is a purely Halachic question. e.g: when discussing women reading publicly from the Torah – What is the obligation of reading the Torah in public? Are women included in that obligation? Is there an issue with hearing a woman’s voice in religious matters? what is the definition of a צבור (community)? what defines כבוד הציבור (the community’s honor) – is it an objective, static, criteria defined by Chazal or is it subject to change as the concept of community changes? is there possibly a third option? etc… Similarly, other issues have their own questions that need consideration and discussion.

I believe that answering this category of questions is actually fairly easy. Not necessarily easy to come to a definitive conclusion but easy to answer, none the less. Utilizing the traditional approaches to sources, precedents and Halachic methodology, Poskim discuss, analyze, deduce and argue the different points of these and other such questions, and apply them accordingly. They won’t always agree, obviously, but it is clear enough to understand how they reached their respective conclusions and follow accordingly.

Let’s say, for a moment, that we’ve reached the conclusion that a certain change in Halachic norm is not against Hlacha – one way or another. At this point, I think we need to consider question number 2 – ‘should Halacha change?’ Meaning, just because something isn’t forbidden, or just because something is permissible, doesn’t necessarily mean it should be done. Halacha isn’t just a list of does and don’ts.

This is a much harder question to answer than the first one, as I don’t believe there are clear sources to draw clear answers from. It is not simply a question of which sources should and shouldn’t be included and the different ways to interpret and apply them. As previously stated, I am a big believer in “כל המשנה-ידו על התחתונה” (“He who wants to make a change- has a lower hand”). I believe that things that have to do with the identity of The Jewish People as it has formed over millennia- among other things, through Halachic norms – should remain the same. The only reason I can see for making institutional changes – in the norms themselves – is in order to maintain that same core identity of what and who we are. I realize, of course, this may seem like a very amorphous question – what are the core values and identity of The Jewish People? – and I am ok with that. Let us have it out, discuss and argue what are the values and ideals most consistent with Jewish identity throughout the ages. But as far as the question of changing Halachic norms, I’d suggest using the following consideration to ascertain whether the change is or isn’t consistent with Communal Jewish Identity. Is the change in the Halachic system (or even in a specific community) a response to the needs of individuals or a response to the need of the system/community itself? Meaning, there are a lot of factors that contribute to individuals wanting Halachic norms to change. Some of them are rooted in real issues and pains while others may stem from personal weaknesses, persuasions and even cultural influences. Either way, it does not seem logical to make institutionalized changes to such a large, complex and important institution just because a certain person – or group of people – happen to think/feel at a certain point in time they have an issue with it. It makes far more sense to say that the community does not need to change for the sake of the individual rather the community only needs to change for the sake of the community itself. one vs. many

A few examples to illustrate the distinction I am trying to make.

  1. When wealthy individuals weren’t lending money to poor people before Shmita, it was a problem for individuals, which Halacha dealt with locally by threatening and sanctioning such behavior. But when many, if not most, people stopped lending money to the poor before Shmita, it became a problem of the system itself, where the effort to keep Halacha (שמיטת כספים) for the sake of the poor, was causing the exact opposite – no one was lending money to the poor for years beforehand. Enter Pruzbul, one of the most radical changes in Halacha in history.
  2. A woman not getting a Get (Halachik divorce document) because her husband is a jerk – a problem of an individual, which Halacha must do its best to solve. Thousands of women not getting Gittin over decades of years – because the system that was put in place to address the issue is no longer effective – a problem of the system itself, as instead of strengthening the institution of marriage, it is in danger of weakening it.
  3. An individual who is not Halachically Jewish wants to marry someone Jewish without converting and is not allowed to – a problem for that individual and their Jewish partner. Hundreds of thousands of non-Jews already marrying Jews while remaining part of the Jewish Community, is already a problem for the system itself, as the mechanism aimed at preventing intermarriage is the one causing it to happen on a massive scale.

All three of the above cases illustrate well the difference between individuals having issues with the Halachic system and the system itself having an issue. It is important to emphasize that I am by no means saying that Halacha does not or should not have solutions for individuals who are suffering due to Halachic restrictions or regulations. Halacha has always known how to be extremely flexible in order to try and spare individuals injustices, suffering and harm. But that is not the issue at hand, which is that of changing Halachic norms, institutionally. One has to do with changing the lives of individuals while the other has to do with changing the life of the Jewish People. That should be a much more serious and complicated matter.

One could argue that if indeed there isn’t a prohibition on a certain thing, or that it could be permissible – why not do it, even if just for the sake of those individuals who are interested, or in actual need? Let alone if an issue seems to be heading in the direction of becoming a communal/institutional problem?

This is where the 3rd question comes in –  “what is the price of the change?” Halacha is a highly complex system comprised of hundreds of thousands of details, ideas, concepts, arguments and customs. It has been evolving and taking shape slowly for thousands of years, sustaining (and sustained by) millions of individuals and communities across the world. It is both an expression of, and a contributor to, so much of who we are. It has contributed to some of the greatest moral and societal transformations not only within The Jewish People but in all of humanity as well, throughout history. And one of the most amazing things about it is that there is no actual institution enforcing it. It is sustained by the millions of people who, throughout our history, chose – and continue to choose – to be committed to it. That is really the only thing that sustains it. The notion of fiddling with it – on an institutional level – to better fit with momentary sensitivities of individual people, I find to be foolish and irresponsible. Most importantly, it ignores the price that is paid when making institutional changes. One needs to think carefully – what is being gained by the change and what is being lost.

The fact that there is a price to pay, that something will be lost doesn’t automatically mean that the change should not be made, just that it needs to be acknowledged and evaluated to decide whether the gain outweighs, or is worth, the loss.


A few examples of how the above questions and considerations would be applied:

1. Woman’s Torah study:

‘Could it change?’ without going into the details and sources at the moment- yes, there was the Halachic possibility of permitting women to formally study and be taught Torah, including the Oral Law, something that had not been done traditionally.

‘Should it have changed?’ using the criteria we set above – was this a need of individuals or of the community – I think it was a communal need. The first Jewish schools for girls opened, among other things, as a response to growing poverty in the Jewish Community as well as growing exposure to the non-Jewish world. Without starting to educate women formally the community would suffer economically and socially as women would not be equipped to face the challenges of a growing secular society, especially as they began entering the workforce.

‘What was the price of the change?’ there was definitely a price to the change – changing the spousal and family dynamic, as women became more knowledgeable, capable and confident in many areas they were not previously. These included finances, religious matters and eventually also politics. Even so, I would argue that none of these were areas in which women were not involved at all, rather, they were less involved. Women had their own financial rights and standings and were always heavily involved in religious matters within the home. So, one could argue that though there was a price to pay for this change – a possible destabilization of the traditional balance within families due to women’s education – it was far outweighed by the financial stability and religious fortitude gained by it.


2. Women joining a Minyan

‘Can it change?’ The short answer is, no, it cannot. Based on studying the Sugiyot and relevant sources, it is my opinion that women cannot be counted as part of a Minyan for דברים שבקדושה (“things to be said in holiness”- Kadish, Kdusha and others) and as far as I am concerned, the discussion on that topic ends there and therefore: ‘Should it change?’ – irrelevant, ‘What is the price of the change’ – irrelevant.


3. Women becoming rabbis

‘Can it change?’ Yes, I hold that it can. Based on what I have learned and read I do not think there is a Halachic issue with women becoming rabbis. This is mainly due to the fact that the roles filled by rabbis today are no longer roles of coercive authority and therefore there is no issue for women to serve as Halachic advisers, spiritual guides and teachers (A.K.A rabbis today).

‘Should it change?’ using my criteria of ‘needs of individuals’ vs. ‘needs of the community’, I think the answer is ‘no, it shouldn’t change’. I do not think there is a national situation which requires such a drastic change. I don’t think there is a national or communal problem that this change addresses. To my knowledge, there is no lack of rabbis in the Jewish World and not even a lack of liberal, women’s-issues-oriented-rabbis. The main reason it is being discussed is because there are individuals, maybe even groups, who feel excluded and think it would allow them to better connect to Torah, Hashem and tradition. I’m not saying I disagree with their sincerity or with the fact that it very well may allow those individuals to truly be more engaged in Torah and Mitzvot. What I am claiming is that I don’t think that is a good enough reason for society to change.

‘What is the price of the change?’ Beyond the ‘classic’ claims such as ‘the unity of the Jewish People (today and throughout history)’ I think there is a much bigger issue and danger – changing the balance of a male dominated public sphere. I am fully aware of how objectionable this may sound to many people today. But, there is no denying that Torah does not see men and women equally, especially when it comes to the public sphere. One can like or dislike the Torah’s fundamental presentation of the balance between the sexes but it is there, none the less. On the one hand, Torah does not ignore women but women appear in it as the ‘other’ and, mostly, as (consistent) supporting figures.

One could try and explain it away as a result of just being a reflection of the power structure that existed during the times being described and that seeing as the power balance has changed (has it?) so should Torah’s take on it but then we are right back where we started from.

Personally, I would argue that the Torah’s approach is not just the result of old fashioned patriarchal structure, rather something far deeper that goes to the core of how Torah sees society. (see * at the end of this page for a more in depth explanation on this)

Regardless of whether you accept my specific explanation, or dismiss it as apologetics, one cannot deny that the Torah establishes a very certain social paradigm. Whether it be a result of theology, anthropology or evolution, the Torah does not view men and women as equal when it comes to their place in society and having men as the spiritual and legal leaders of the Jewish Community maintains that structure. I am sure that many people reading this are thinking – ‘yes! That is exactly what we want to change!’ I understand that but fundamentally disagree with the sentiment. It may be worth looking carefully at western countries in which the more drastic changes have taken place in these areas and see whether it has strengthened or weakened society as a whole, with an emphasis on long term variables.

Even so, what happens if and when the issue goes from being that of individuals to that of the community? For instance, if there is a lack of male rabbis, or that there is a large-scale issue with the ability of rabbis to address the needs of their communities? (Good examples of this are the ‘family purity advisers’ and the female rabbinical advocates, both of whom are dealing with large scale problematic phenomena that just happen to also effect a lot of women.)

If and when that happens I believe the change should be made, and chances are, it would be well on its way to happening already. I’d like to believe, though, that it would happen in a far more organic way, one which would preserve those ideals of Torah regarding society’s structure. As I have stated previously, I have tremendous trust in the system of Halacha as an embodiment of the collective identity of the Jewish People and that, as it has for the past 3500 years, it – eventually – knows what it is doing.

Some final thoughts:

1. Assuming my distinction, of “the needs of the community not the needs of individuals” is correct, the question then becomes – how do we know what is an individual need vs. a communal one? Is it just a matter of numbers? Is it just a matter of time, until the problem gets bigger and prevalent enough? Also, who decides when an issue if big or deep enough to justify an institutional change?

I must admit I do not have a definitive answer to these questions but I know that it isn’t any one person or one community within the Jewish People. It needs to be something or someone who represents and expresses the will of the collective of the Jewish People. Maybe it is the Government of Israel or its Rabbinic arm, the Chief Rabbinate (as an institution, not necessarily as Rabbi X or Rabbi Y…). Part of me wonders if it is only through the perspective of history that the Jewish People pass judgment on such things – that which has been accepted by the nation and that which has not.

2. The last question which I think needs to be addressed is what about those individuals who feel they can’t wait until the rest of the Jewish People “catch up” or figure out what they are certain is correct? What about those people who have difficulty feeling connected to, and inspired towards, a committed life of Torah because of a very real feeling of personal or ideological injustice?

A. As the Rolling Stones put it, “You can’t always get what you want”. As someone who works with kids and youth, I often wonder if we do as good a job as them in accepting authority. This might sound very counter-intuitive but, as adults, how often do we do things that we actually do not wish to do, or don’t believe we have/need to do, just because an authority figure told us to? (“so I don’t get fired/caught”, obviously, doesn’t count. Neither does “I don’t feel like it but I know it is the right thing to do”). Meaning, do we still have a sense of קבלת עול towards anything or anyone? Among them – towards Chachamim, towards our tradition, towards Hashem? That is what I think might be required in some of these cases. Accepting that as long as they choose to be part of this system of a committed life to Halachic Torah and Mitzvot they may have to “suffer” for the sake of the community, its time-frame and processes.

B. We live in a time of extreme privatization and entrepreneurship of Torah and Mitzvot. If a person feels that this issue is impeding their ability to live a committed and meaningful life of Torah and Mitzvot (which I believe could indeed be the case for some people) they are welcome to start their own Minyan, or to practice however they see fit. To put it in a Mei Hashiloach language – if you are convinced it is coming from a place of yearning to do Hashem’s will and you have eliminated other influences – laziness, pride, lust, etc… then go ahead and do it. That is your “Cheshbon” with Hashem. Just don’t expect us, the community, to give it our seal of approval or like it. Be prepared to do it alone, or with other likeminded people without expecting the community to change to fit with your individual, subjective convictions.

3. I know how tensions run high in these discussions and hope that even if no one is convinced by what I wrote, people will at least realize that there is a very good case to be made for a more traditional, conservative (small ‘C’) approach to changes in Halacha due to changes in societal norms, including in the question of women and Halacha.

* So many of these discussions seem to revolve around the ‘rights’ argument. That women, in general, or a specific woman should have the right to participate, share, express “just like men”, or to express themselves “to the fullest”. These types of arguments have a fundamental assumption which I find to be incorrect and extremely problematic. By no means is it exclusive for the discussion about women’s role in Halacha but it is one of the areas it is the most present. I recently completed a separate post on this exact topic, so will just summarize it as follows: I don’t believe the Torah believes in the concept of rights. The Torah believes in obligations, not rights. For instance, as a non-Kohen, I’m not being denied the right to serve on the Mizbe’ach in Beit Hamikdash, rather, I am not obligated to do so. Because I lack that status of obligation, I cannot enter certain places in Beit Hamikdash, even if being there would allow me a closeness to Hashem I would not attain elsewhere. I cannot eat certain foods, even if their holiness would significantly enhance my religious engagement and fulfillment. I would not be permitted to go up to the Duchan and bless the community (with a Bracha) during the priestly prayer just because I (honestly!) feel the love of Hashem to The Jewish People flow through me. This is all true, even if because of them Kohanim have more influence on the religious sphere within Am Yisrael. Whether it is supposed to be part of the result or just an indirect result is a worthy but separate question. I use this example, of a non-Kohen vs. Kohen, as it is easier to accept the distinction between ‘rights’ and ‘obligations’ in it. Most of us would look very strangely at the request of a non-Kohen to be permitted to practice as much of the Kohanic obligations as very, very odd. Torah teaches us to look first and foremost at “what does Hashem your God ask from you” and practically every single time Hashem speaks to someone in the Torah it is to command and relay expectations. And Torah’s expectations from men and women are different. That much is crystal clear. Why is that the case?
Answer 1 – don’t know, don’t care. It’s about fulfilling your obligations and different people have different obligations. Some of those different jobs can be categorized along the male-female line, others along the Kohen-non Kohen line, others along the single-married line and others along the Israel-outside of Israel line.
Answer 2 – The approach I personally identify with the most is the theological one, which sees the different roles Torah designates men and women as part of how Hashem created the world. In the first creation story man and woman are described as being created together, as one entity – “ויקרא שמם אדם” (“and he named them Adam”). Later, in the second creation story, man is described as being created first and women being created second, from him and as his counterpart. In these very different descriptions, I think Torah is saying it all.
Often, people like referencing the first creation story to prove that Torah’s fundamental approach and its original ideal is that of total equality between man and woman. But that is not the picture the Torah is depicting. It doesn’t describe them as equals, rather as one and the same. One whole creation which has two components to it, two aspects to it. The Torah’s topic is that complete unit. It is to that 2-aspected, single unit, that Hashem commands “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth”. The single man and the single woman are not really the main focus of the Torah, as it sees it as an incomplete state of being. Its topic is the “duo which is one”.
In chapter two we discover what role each component plays in the whole. Just as a body has internal organs and external organs, it seems the Torah designates the “man-component” of the complete unit to be the dominant force when it comes to the outside world – the external organs – while Torah designates the “woman-component” of the unit to be dominant when it comes to the internal world.
(I’m not even going to go the route of “which is more important internal or external organs?” to try and emphasize the importance of women, as – although I don’t necessarily disagree with it – I find it reeks too much of apologetics for most people’s pallets today and it doesn’t really fit with the analogy I am using. One is irrelevant without the other. A person cannot live without internal organs and a person cannot live without external organs.)
I would argue that the biological differences evolutionists identify as the cause of all the social differences between men and women are the exact opposite – the result of the different roles God designated for them as part of a complete, unified, entity.



Filed under Halacha, Morality

You have no right. No one does. To anything.

The right to marry, the right to adopt, the right to choose one’s gender, the right to one’s body, the right to free speech, the right to bare arms and the list of rights goes on. These and many other rights are part of the “rights conversation” which has been increasingly dominating Western politics and social order in recent years.


This phenomena has not passed over the Jewish and Orthodox worlds, with woman’s communal roles, LGBTQ’s in the community, marriage postponement, family planning and other similar questions becoming the delineating lines along which Jews have come to define their religious orientation. And, as is happening in general society, the individual rights argument is playing an increasingly dominant role in these discussions and slowly transforming institutions and conventions previously unchanged for generations.

Those trying to stand in the way of these changes find themselves, many times, defending Torah against the ‘rights conversation’. Some, attempt to reconcile the two by trying to prove how Torah’s ideals and guidelines are the true individual rights, while others try and explain how Torah defines these rights – or their parameters – differently. Until recently, I was a proponent of highlighting the rights of the community/Jewish Nation/Jewish People Throughout History, as opposed to the rights of the individual. Even so, I’ve always felt an uneasiness with these approaches, feeling they were more apologetics than anything else and lacked an independent, consistent, stance on the matters.

I recently realized why we seem to be losing the battle – within our own communities. This is because in the way in which we most often discuss these matters we unwittingly accept the premise of the arguments we are trying so desperately to reject; that people have unalienable, immutable rights. Then the question just becomes – how far do those rights extend? There is little surprise, then, that the rights conversation continues to expand and eat away at social conventions that just a few years ago were almost unthinkable.

Like many people, I simply knew something was “off” with the entire discussion but couldn’t put my finger on it. I think the reason for this is the degree to which we, in the Jewish and Orthodox world, are steeped in Western Civilization and therefore have difficulty drawing logical lines between “acceptable” rights and non “acceptable” ones. After searching for years for the elusive line between the rights which fit with Torah and those that do not and struggling with the troubling range left open for interpretation and personal biases, it finally came to me.

It is still a working theory but here it is – I’m pretty sure Torah doesn’t believe in the concept of rights. I can’t think of a single case or example in the Torah where someone has an inherent right. To anything. It seems that whenever God spoke to people in the Torah it was to let them know what they are expected to do – their obligation. You, as a parent, do not have the right to be respected by your children rather, your children have the obligation to respect you. The two are not the same thing. I don’t have the right to live as much as you have the prohibition not to kill me (or the obligation to not let me die). The Jewish People don’t have a right to the Land of Israel, rather, we have the obligation to live in it, conquer and settle it. Kohanim don’t have the right to serve in Beit Hamikdash as opposed to non-Kohanim, rather they have an obligation to do so.  The more I think about it the more it seems that in the Torah itself it is all about obligations and I think this is because of something even more fundamental that lay at the core of how Torah sees the world.

Simply put, we live in Hashem’s world. We did not create ourselves, we did not create the world we live in, we do not sustain ourselves, or it, every moment of every day. As such, Torah assumes our existence is for a purpose which transcends our individual, all too temporary, lives. Our entire existence serves someone and something else – be it God, Divine Justice, Jewish Destiny or any other divinely inspired ideal. Therefore, a person’s life ought to be driven by gratitude and servitude. Our entire lives are expected to be one, long, continuous “thank you”, translated into a “what am I supposed to do”. All of this is the antithesis to some of the most foundational concepts of Western Civilization, as they developed since the mid 17th Century through the enlightenment, all the way to today with the emphasis of natural rights and the autonomous man.

I do believe that these were important ideas and key developments within Western Civilization which have benefited the world greatly and even that some of them stem from Jewish and scriptural influences. But, just because these concepts helped free Western Civilizations from the tyranny of the church, of the Monarchy or the Feudal System, doesn’t make them theologically correct and definitely not necessarily for every era and community.

I do think that when we come to Chazal’s world – the oral law and the world of Halacha – we do begin to encounter something similar to rights but the fact that in Torah itself we do not, rather only encounter obligations, outlines the fundamental outlook of Torah as being diametrically opposed to what has become the theological and political paradigm within which we live.

I realize that saying that we do not believe in rights sounds troubling. I’m not saying that on a practical level no one has any rights, rather, that when we come to think of how these discussions and debates fit with Torah we need to realize that Torah has a completely different outlook on the human condition and is coming at these questions from an entirely different perspective. I have found this line of thinking and argumentation extremely powerful when considering the topic myself or discussing it with others. It doesn’t just ‘win by points’ by arguing against a specific point, rather, it offers a completely different moral – and theological – outlook at society and the human condition. And one need not necessarily accept the Torah’s outlook as I have outlined it to understand that attacking Torah based on the individual rights conversation doesn’t make much sense, considering the different world view. Whether a person chooses to prescribe to the ‘rights conversation’ or the ‘obligation conversation’ is entirely up to them but it is important to realize the significance of that choice and the different types of societies each of them envisions and aspires to.

I do think that, many times, Halacha can come to the same practical conclusions as those led by the individual rights conversation but I think they arrive there in a very different way, which makes all the difference. (I hope to share some examples of this in the near future).

I’d like to conclude this long train of thought with the famous opening of the Mesilat Yesharim (Path of The Just): “The foundation of piety and the root of perfect service is for a man to clarify and come to realize as truth what is his obligation in the world and to what he needs to direct his gaze and his aspiration in all that he toils all the days of his life”.



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Filed under Morality, Politics, Theology

Modern Orthodoxy Vs. Religious Zionism (Part 2)

It has been over 3 years since my first discussion on the topic of Modern Orthodoxy Vs. Religious Zionism and I have been mulling over it ever since. In recent months a public debate has arisen in Israel surrounding the question “is there such a thing as Religious-Zionist Psika”. At the same time, in the US the debate between Modern Orthodoxy and newly named “Open Orthodoxy” continues to bubble in the background of many public debates. Though none of these terms are “real” terms, meaning, terms which have Halachik-legal definitions they are ideologies and outlooks which deeply effect both societal norms and, I would argue, the Halachik approaches and decisions of rabbis in these communities. (I am aware that there are those who would strongly disagree with my premise that Halachik deciscors are influenced by predisposed ideologies and rather hold that they interpret the Halachik sources based exclusively on an objective Halachik understanding. Though there is room for a discussion whether that should or should not, ideally, be the case – or even possible – I believe it is very naive to pretend that is not the reality of the Halachik world today, especially when it comes to socially sensitive topics).

This in mind, I will do my best to define the terms based on living in both communities – both in Israel and North America – having studied directly from several prominent rabbis from both communities and having learned and read extensively from their Torahs and writings.

Modern Orthodoxy is what it sounds like – an Orthodox outlook which is informed by and responds to Modernity, seeing value in the phenomena. These include, among other things, the recognition – and value – in the change in the status of women in society, the necessity – and value – of modern scholarship and study, and the positive approach towards the State of Israel. According to this approach, Zionism is just one more phenomena which is a positive outcome of Modernity and as such – we have a positive and inclusive approach to it as part of our Orthodox life. The degree to which ones Orthodoxy is effected – and in what way – by their Modernity seems to be just that – a difference of degree (The baseline seems to be “To what degree does this phenomena fit with our Orthodoxy”? with some taking it a bit further asking “can we make it fit enough?” while some go even further stating “how can we make it fit, period”).

Religious Zionism, on the other hand, is not exactly what it sounds like. Religious Zionism is not the combination of 2 things and is not the relationship between 2 competing ideals. Religious Zionism sees itself as THE Zionism and as THE (Jewish) Religion; a religion which is one in the same with “true” Zionism – the existence of the Jewish People as a Priestly Kingdom and a Holly Nation, meaning – the life of the collective that is The Jewish People  in the Land of Israel according to the Torah of Israel. According to this approach one of the vehicles, or catalysts, to the re-emergence of the Jewish collective is Modernity. But Modernity is not the root cause of political Zionism and the State of Israel. The divine destiny of The Jewish People is. Modernity allowed for that destiny to materialize, almost like a stage which has – finally – been completed for actors who have been practicing for all too long. Therefore, the question that is always in the background of RZ discussions – both ideological and Halachik – is “what is the essentialist character and destiny of Am Yisrael and the best way to realize it?” Modernity is just one more tool through which this may be done.

Meaning, Modern Orthodoxy values Zionism as one more product of Modernity while Religious Zionism has no inherent stance on Modernity at all. This can explain the fact that, while there are many similarities between the communities, there are several key issues they usually find themselves almost completely opposed on.

A few examples:

  1. Tzniut – the prevailing Modern Ortodox approach puts more of an emphasis on the balance in ones individual life between internal and external beauty and spirituality and the exclusivity of the physical relationship to building a unique bond with ones spouse. The prevailing Religious Zionist approach puts more of an emphasis on צניעות as a national characteristic which distinguishes us from other nations, building strong families, which builds a strong and holly nation. As a result of this difference, the Tzniut norms in Religious Zionist communities is higher with many Religious Zionist rabbis holding Halachik approaches – for both men and women – more similar to those of Satmer than those of the Modern Orthodox community. (this also accounts for the growing phenomena of both young men and women in the Religious Zionist community in Israel who have developed unique dress styles, which are both צנוע but also distinct from other cultures, especially Western culture. In a bit of a reverse logic, this also accounts for the fact that, in practicality, there seems to be more of a lax approach among educators and teens in Religious Zionism towards the actual observance of these higher standards, which is a result of the fact that the core educational emphases are different).
  2. Shmita – the prevailing Modern Orthodox approach is that Shmita is one more Mitzvah which the individual Jew should be on the “safe side of”, leading to many Modern Orthodox rabbis (especially in America) to beware of היתר מכירה and אוצר בית דין. The Religious Zionist approach, however, sees Shmita as a test case for the collective observance of a Mitzvah that defines the return to The Land. New factors have been added into the equation, such as the effect Shmita will have on Israeli agriculture and Israeli financial independence. As a result there is a strong endorsement of היתר מכירה and אוצר בית דין whereas יבול נוכרי is treated as אסור, almost as Treif.
  3. Settling the Land of Israel – The prevailing Modern Orthodox approach is that living in the Land of Israel is A Mitzvah which we are once again fortunate to be able to observe in our generation – if you are able to. In the Religious Zionist world, on the other hand, it is seen as the Mitzvah of our generations, as it is the foundation for the realization of the destiny of The Jewish People which is unfolding in front of our eyes. It is seen as as significant to what it means to be Jewish as Shabbat and Kashrut, possibly even more so. This also accounts for another difference – the question of “Land for Peace”. A fairly common approach within the Modern Orthodox world is that, on a theoretical level, if peace with the Palestinians were possible portions of the land should be given in exchange. The predominant approach in the Religious Zionist community and its rabbinic circles sees the mere suggestion as Jewishly repugnant.

Other examples include topics as varied as “family planning” and contraceptives, the celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut as a religious holiday (including shaving during Sfira), the attitude towards the Conservative and Reform movements, the status of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, reliance on non Mehadrin Kashrut and the Halachik weight of the plight and voices of the various “others” within the community. By no means do these differences always translate into Modern Orthodox – lenient, Religious Zionist – stringent. The last 2 are good examples of the reverse. Also, by no means do these differences translate into Modern Orthodox – North America rabbis and communities, Religious Zionist – Israeli rabbis and communities. There are plenty of rabbis and communities in Israel who have strong Modern Orthodox leanings, be it because they originate from Modern Orthodox communities in the US or have adopted a Modern Orthodox outlook after being exposed and influenced by some of its proponents.

I admit that this is an oversimplification of a variety of issues and questions which deserve a much more individualized discussion. Many rabbis, including some leading authorities, would not fit so snugly into the boxes I have depicted here and you will find their Halachik rulings crossing the ideological lines just drawn. Individual rabbis will inevitably find themselves taking a stance on each topic based on their understanding of the relevant sources, their tradition of Psika and their evaluation of reality. Even so, I still believe that what has been laid out here explains the major trends and differences between the communities, as best evident in their extremes as well as by the changes the communities have experienced in the past few decades.

Why is this discussion important?

There is a mistaken thought that the Modern Orthodox community in the US and the Religious Zionist community in Israel are the same community with minor, cultural, differences. That they are 2 sides of the same coin with the 2 sides just being the sides of the Atlantic Ocean; that Religious Zionism is the Israeli version of Modern Orthodoxy and that Modern Orthodoxy is the American version of Religious Zionism. That is not true. (Just ask Americn Olim who live anywhere in Israel other than Gush Etzion, Chashmonaim and certain parts of Yerushalaim and Modi’in). There is, of course, a lot of overlap and there are many people – and rabbis – who embody a combination in their personalities and their Torah approach but, the whole context and orientation of the communities are different.

This, I believe, is a reason why the Religious Zionist community in Israel is not only continuously growing in numbers but have, arguably, become the most influential force in Israel society today, while the Modern Orthodox community in the US seems stagnant, not only in its size but more importantly, by a sense of paralysis due to the dialectic values and groups it has difficulty continuing to encompass (some great insights on the state of Modern Orthodoxy in the US by Prof. Jack Wertheimer can be read here).

In North America, recognizing the differences can, hopefully, encourage the Modern Orthodox community to reflect and realize what is missing from its ideology, what emphases are lacking from its internal discourse and more importantly – from its educational philosophy and institutions, a topic I hope to explore soon in a separate post.

In Israel, on the other hand, this can help explain some of the vocal debates in recent years between what seem to be different factions within the Religious Zionist community, with some having a far more Modern Orthodox approach to modernity – and much that comes with it – while others, as stated, having no inherent approach to it at all.

On a personal note, when trying to figure out my own “place” in this discussion I have found myself, over the years, on what seemed to be conflicting sides of some of the specific issues. I have finally understood why. When it comes to my private life – I am Modern Orthodox but when it comes to the public sphere – I am a Religious Zionist.













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A “Current Events” Message From 1925

One of my greatest loves is old books. Over the years, I have collected a nice amount of old books on various Jewish topics, though I haven’t had a chance to read all of them yet. Last week I came across one which, upon picking it up, realized was waiting for the events of this past week to occasion itself upon me. It has profoundly affected my perspective on the events we are living through these days.

In 1925, Leonard Stein – of London England – felt the need to write “an objective account of the Zionist Movement”. The book, simply named “Zionism”, includes 7 chapters covering topics such as “The Origins of Zionism”, “The Jews in Palestine 1880-1914” and “The Balfour Declaration”. It is a short but fascinating read, as it provides a portrait of Zionism in its infancy –  before world world 2, before the Holocaust and before the establishment of The State of Israel.

In reading through the book I found 2 of his themes extremely relevant and important for gaining perspective on what is unfolding in Israel these past few weeks. I’d like to share them with you, as I feel that both points are sorely missing from the general conversation, especially outside Israel.

Point 1 – What is at the center of it?

Already in the Balfour Declaration, immediately after stating that “His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object”, it goes on to state “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non Jewish communities in Palestine”.

Similarly, as early as in May 1917, Dr. Chaim Weizmann made the following statements:

“One of the important problems to be considered… is the delicate question of the Holy Places… We trust to the fairness and justice of the nations… that they will see to it that the arrangements made are fair and satisfactory to everyone”

On a different occasion he stated: “(The Jews) wished to interfere in no way with the Holy Places to which the hearts of Muslims and Christians turned with reverence”. In 1922, when the British mandate was to be approved by The League of Nations, the declaration included:

“The Secretary of State believes that a policy upon these lines, coupled with the maintenance of the fullest religious liberty in Palestine and with scrupulous regard for the rights of each community with reference too its Holy Places… and that upon this basis may be built up the spirit of co-operation upon which the future progree and prosperity of the Holy Land must largely depend”

The body of the original mandate expounds on this point:

“All responsibility in connection with the Holy places and religious buildings… including securing free access to the Holy Places, religious buildings and sites and the free exercise of worship… is assumed by the mandatory… and provided also that nothing in this mandate shall be construed as conferring upon the Mandatory authority to interfere with the fabric or the management of purely Muslim sacred shrines, the immunities of which are guaranteed”. A special commission shall be appointed… to define and determine the rights and claims relating to the different religious communities in Palestine”

In a statement submitted to The League of nations, it is stated that

“(the Jews) have from the outset recognized the Christian and Muslim Holy Places as sacrosanct and inviolable. They indignantly repudiate the injurious and wholly unfounded suggestion that they desire to trespass upon them or to claim any voice in questions relating to their maintenance or their custody”.

These are just a few examples, among many others, that demonstrate the degree to which the questions of the Holy Sites was at the center of attention – and contention – from the very beginning of Zionism.  It seems that the deepest fear – nationally and internationally – had to do with the status of the Holy Places.

It would seem that it has always been, to some degree, about the Holy Places and what they symbolize – the right to both the land of God and possibly even the right to God himself. We seem to be witnessing the boiling over of an issue which, for many, many years, we skirted under the rug. It began to resurface following the six day war but has become an increasingly hot issue in the past 10 years. It seems we can no longer hide from taking a stand on what Har HaBayit means to us, not only as a futuristic concept, but what it means to us here and now. We are just now realizing that, at least for the Arabs, it has been at the heart of the conflict this entire time and the dots are now being connected between the Temple Mount to every other area of the country. The longer we wait to take our own stance on what Har HaBayit means to our national identity and to Modern Zionism, the more ground we will lose and the greater the price we may be forced to pay, as we seem to – finally – have reached the heart of the problem. I can’t say I have the answer to the question I am posing – “What does, or should, Har HaBayit mean to The State of Israel?” but am just identifying that we find ourselves now forced to form an answer. Evidently, Hashem feels we are ready for it.


Point 2 – Historical Perspective and Optimism

In his final chapter, titled “Zionist Aims and Prospects”, Stein attempts to lay out future directions for the Zionist Movement:

At the census of October 1922 there were only 83,794 Jews in Palestine as compared with 673,388 non-Jews, of whom the overwhelming majority may be classified as Arabs… nor do the immigration returns of the past few years point to the early or even the eventual establishment of a Jewish majority… from the facts at present available there is only one inference to be drawn. Palestine will find room in course of time for some hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants; it will become a country in which the Jews form a much larger percentage of the population than in any other part of the world but there is little likelihood of its absorbing them in such numbers as will make them an actual majority…

…Nevertheless, Palestine stands out as the one country in the world in which Jewish immigrants have in principle an assured right of entry under an international guarantee. But this is not all. Palestine is much more than one among other conceivable places of refuge. Palestine is not merely a country: it is an idea. The Jews… see in Palestine the symbol for their will to live. It is in Palestine that the Jews see their opportunity of making their distinctive contribution to the common stock. Here is a derelict country in which everything remains to be done. Let the Jews rebuild it; let them reclaim its wastes; let them develop its neglected resources; let them make it a model of a healthy and well ordered society; let them give it a place of its own in the world of thought and learning. Then, indeed, they will have triumphantly vindicated themselves as a constructive force.

Thus what the Jews are doing in Palestine is to translate spiritual values into terms of economic reconstruction. And in another profound sense the Jews, in redeeming Palestine, are redeeming themselves. Palestine stands, in their eyes, not only for self respect, but for self expression. It is not merely a derelict country waiting to be restored: it has a magic of its own. In Palestine, just because it is Palestine, Jewish life has a distinctive quality and is keyed too a higher pitch.

During the past 30 years, the devoted labors and the lavish expenditure of the Jewish Colonization Association have enabled about 30,000 Jews to settle on the land in Argentina and Brazil. So far as it goes, this is a valuable piece of work. But the 30,000 colonists have created nothing beyond their farms. They have not made the smallest impression upon the Jewish world at large; nor has anyone ever suggested that “from Mauricio shall go forth the Law the Word of the Lord from Entre-Rios”.

Very different, as has been seen, are the results and the prospects of Jewish colonization in Palestine. The contrast is illuminating. The Zionists are under no illusion in believing that in Palestine, and in Palestine alone, it is possible to build up a many sided and self relient Jewish society which shall be a true reflection of the Jewish genius and a living embodiment of Jewish ideals”.

O, how wrong he was about his first prediction and how correct he was about the second one! How wrong he was that “there is little likelihood of… making them an actual majority”. From a marginal minority in the land we have become not only the decisive majority but the also the full sovereign.  And how right he was that “in redeeming Palestine we are redeeming ourselves” and that we have “translated spiritual values into terms of economic reconstruction” and “made a distinctive contribution to the common stock”! These words of inspiration form 90 years ago, serve as a reminder of everything that has been achieved in the past 90 years; how far we have come and to what degree the dreams of our forefathers are being realized in front of our eyes.

I share these words not only as a way of staying optimistic in the trying times we are in but in order to put into perspective the lives and deaths of the murdered. All of the hopes reflected in the above passages, which have been realized in the past century did so through people like Rabbi Eitam and Na’ama Henkin, Rabbi Nechemia Lavi and Aharon Benita. Rabbi Eitam and Na’ama Henkin were murdered as representatives of the continued Jewish efforts of settling the Land of Israel. Rabbi Nechemia Lavi was murdered as a representative of renewing Torah study – Torat Eretz Yisrael – in the wellspring of Jewish inspiration. Aharon Benita was murdered as a representative of protecting the land and people of Israel. Many others have been injured – as representatives – for reinforcing our connection to the old city through Tfila, or as our representatives for going to the the store or mall, all of which strengthen the connection of Am Yisrael to the land, people and destiny of Israel. And they were not just representatives, they were our representatives. They were representing us when they were doing all these great deeds and they were representing us when they were murdered.

We mourn the loss of the individuals. We mourn the lives cut short. We mourn for the widowed and orphaned. We mourn for our own great loss. But, we must not mourn them as victims of random acts of hate and antisemitism. We must mourn them as soldiers on the field of battle; the great battle of the return to our homeland, the return to ourselves as Hashem’s people. Just as we mourn the horrific death Rabbi Akiva but, at the same time, allowed it to instill within us perseverance, faith and even inspiration – so too we should do in our current mourning.

They were all soldiers in the great awakening of the Spirit of Israel which has already achieved so much and cannot be stopped כי ה’ דבר, because God has spoken!





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3 parables about living in Galut today

To what is it similar?

1. To a man who was punished and chained beside a ferocious attack dog. At times, the dog would bark at the man or maul him while at other times, he would ignore him completely, busying himself by barking at the other dogs, warding them off. Because of his chains, all the man could do was cower in fear and pray to God the dog would not notice him, would not attack and maul him, rather continue barking at the surrounding dogs. After every such prayer, when no dog (the surrounding one or the one he was chained next to) would attack the man, he would say to the dog “good dog! good dog!”. After many such days, someone broke the man’s chains. The man had became so accustomed to living beside the ferocious dog, cowering before it, praying not to be mauled by it and retorting “Good dog! Good dog!”, that instead of getting up and fleeing he just remained where he was. And until today one can find the unchained man laying on the filthy ground beside the vicious attack dog, eating left over scraps and once a week saying: “please God, save me from this good doggie! please don’t let him – or any other dog – maul me to death this weak!”

2. To a man in Germany saying the prayer for “his” government in 1932. (In Germany, some communities continued saying the “prayer for the government” until November of 1938. In Norway – until the closing of the last Shul in 1942. In Denmark – until Rosh Hshanah of 1943. In Antwerp – until late 1941, even after the government surrendered to the Nazis. In France – until the summer of 1942 when the mass deportations began. In Italy – until 1938 with the publication of the “race laws”. In Hungary – until the spring of 1944, when mass deportations began as well. And in Austria – some communities continued praying for the welfare of “their” government until the end of the war.

3. To a man who comes to a formal event and is introduced to a a colleague’s wife. The colleague says to the man: “what do you think of my wife?”. “She seems very nice”, says the man blandly. “it’s ok” says the woman, “Take a nice long look. Stare at me. I don’t mind. Tell me – and everyone else – how beautiful and attractive I am. Wouldn’t you want to spend more time with me? don’t worry – I take it as a complement!”. Not wanting to be disrespectful, the man does as he is told. He looks, he stares, he ogles. The more he looks and the more they speak the more mesmerized he is by her. “If you really think I’m pretty” she exclaims, “prove it and sing me a love song”. Without hesitation the man begins to sing. As he completes his song for his friends wife, his own wife appears besides him and asks: “honey, what’s going on here? did I just hear you sing this woman a love song?” “Don’t worry sweetie” he replies. You look pretty and attractive too. Didn’t I buy you those beautiful cloths and Jewelry you’re wearing? didn’t I spend a whole day just with you last week? here; I’ll sing you a love song too. But please understand that when I’m done singing your song – I still plan on sleeping at her place tonight”.

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