Category Archives: Morality

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”.



1 Comment

Filed under Morality, Politics, Theology

Religious Vegetarianism – is it time?

When I was 17, I happened upon a book I received for my Bar Mitzvah (!) by the name of “A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace, written by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook. In it, he discusses vegetarianism as a religious ideal; its origins, merits, and dangers.

Here’s the (very!) short version:

  • Man was never intended to eat meat as it is immoral to derive pleasure from the suffering/death of other living creatures
  • Humanity failed to live up to the high moral standards set forth by God, leading to the flood
  • Man was permitted, temporarily, to eat meat for 4 reasons:
    1. Each “level” of creation needs to contribute its part to the gradual development and elevation of the world. In his current state, man depends – physically and emotionally – on eating meat for the world to develop.
    2. It is futile to try and maintain a moral standard of sensitivity towards animals while the world is filled with cruelty between humans. Humanity must first purge itself from far greater injustices before doing so towards animals.
    3. A prohibition to eat meat reinforces an equation between the species, legitimizing humans seeing themselves and acting no different than animals. Permission to eat meat instills the distinction between the species and therefore, an understanding that man is more than an animal, with greater expectations.
    4. Abstention from eating meat can create a false sense of morality which would – consciously or unconsciously – serve as an excuse for other immoralities. Eating meat serves as a “vent” for mans lower, animalistic, aggressions. Left without that “vent” people would find other, human, aggression vents, while still convinced they are moral due to their vegetarianism. (remember the stories of the vegetarian SS commanders walking their dogs through the camps?)
  • The Torah’s laws pertaining to animals incorporate both aspects – allowing man the use of meat while minimizing the cruelty involved in it while forcing him realize the moral compromise it involves. By following these “balance keeping” laws, man’s sensitivity towards animals can slowly develop, alongside humanity’s general moral development, towards the day when the full ideal of vegetarianism is natural and obvious.
  • In the meantime, vegetarianism should not be adopted by the masses but only by pious individuals who already lead lives of higher moral and religious standards. If the masses were to adopt it, he warns, it could lead – like during the generation of the flood – to the denigration and moral corruption of humanity.

Being the 17 year old idealist that I was, I knew for a fact that when Rav Kook spoke about the pious individuals who could take on vegetarianism, he was, obviously, talking about me… Six months later, after rereading the essay, I realized that – no, he wasn’t. I found myself looking down judgmentally at non vegetarians, excusing certain behaviors and avoiding guilt trips due to a new found sense of self righteousness. Thus ended my romance with vegetarianism.

Ever since, I have struggled with the topic and the degree to which I should or should not re-adopt it. Recently, inspired by the public display of vegetarianism by Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin, the following thought has begun to haunt me:

How are we to understand the fact that animal cruelty today is the worst in history. Due to factory farming and the mass production of meat for human consumption and commercialization, animal cruelty is more severe and more systematized then could possible be previously imagined (I dare you to go on youtube and search “factory farming” or “animal cruelty“. Let’s see how long you can bare to watch)
Keeping in line with Rav Kook’s philosophy, the fact that, through industrialization, animachicksGroundDownl cruelty has become:
1. So severe
2. So well known and undeniable
One must say 1 of 2 things:
Either we are in greater danger than before of “blurring the species lines” (reason no.3) and in greater need of “non-human aggression vents” (reason no.4), or, these new scale cruelties are a divine “nudge”, forcing us to realize what was always there to a tolerable degree has now reached a horrible epoch, one that can no longer be rationalized by moral philosophy and that we have no choice but to move towards adopting vegetarianism on a larger scale.

Considering that Rav Kook also holds that the world – as a whole – is constantly moving towards greater moral refinement (something I believe with every fiber of my being, especially since the establishment of the State of Israel)
and that
The alternatives for a non-vegetarian diet are so easily accessible or even produced,
I wonder if we are ready to take on a greater moral standard and progress towards vegetarianism. Meaning, if in past generations there was a certain correlation between man’s lower moral standards and limited- “personal use”- animal cruelty, we now find ourselves with an opposite correlation – higher moral standards on the one side but increased animal cruelty on the other.
Personally, I feel less and less capable of rationalizing the support of and participation in the industrialization of animal cruelty, while aspiring to the loftiest moral and religious ideals.
What about you?

1 Comment

Filed under Morality, Theology

Jews as slave owners(?)


The title of this post makes me cringe as I’m assuming it does any decent person reading it.
How can we reconcile the existence of slavery in the Torah and its normative regulation in Halacha with what is in our days a fundamental universal truth – the abhorrence of slavery in any form?
In addition, how can we as Orthodox Jews understand slavery as part of the eternal Torah which we believe is relevant to our lives in every generation? are we to sympathize with slave ownership?
Two classic approaches to this challenge are:

1. Slavery in the Torah has nothing to do with slavery as we know it from history. This approach emphasizes those Halachot that set Torah’s slavery as fundamentally different. One of the more famous of these is pointing out that one only becomes a slave by either selling themselves or by being sold by the court after stealing and not being able to pay back. Other examples are that one is forbidden to task their slave with denigrating work, that a slave has the right to sue his master if physically harmed, that – at most – a person could be a slave for 6 years and of course – even slaves have 1 day off a week and other such examples. It is more of a semantic confusion than a moral contradiction: what the Torah calls ‘slave’, we today call ’employee’, ‘maid’ or ‘cleaning lady’ or ‘nanny’.
Though this definitely depicts a significantly milder form of slavery than that we are familiar with from history, it tends to leave out the less “PC” aspects of slavery in Halacha; that one may forcibly sell his – Jewish – daughter as a slave if she is of a certain age, that a non Jew can be taken as a slave by force without stealing or selling themselves, that he can be forced to mate and then have his children taken from him and sold, that it is forbidden to release him from slavery, that one is allowed to assign him fruitless and humiliating work, that it is permissible to beat ones slave as long as no irreversible damage is done, etc…
To call this approach an attempt at apologetics would be an understatement.

2. Slavery exists even if we make believe it doesn’t. Not necessarily the same crude physical ownership of one man over another, but just as real an exploitation of the poor by the wealthy; the CEO who exploits the manpower wabolish slavery MEDorker who cannot make ends meet, has no health insurance or benefits of any kind, who can be fired at a moments notice with no supports or assistance once his exploitation is complete. Better to regulate such non ideal societal dynamics, thus minimizing the exploitation, than ignoring them and telling ourselves that “slavery is a thing of the past and of no concern to us as modern people”. Having slavery as a fixed element in Torah  and Halacha reminds us that severe exploitation will always be among us and we must recognize it and try to regulate and minimize it. This approach emphasizes the degree to which following the Halachot of slavery would have contained the more crude and cruel elements of slavery and even progress certain barbaric tendencies among individuals or groups who are more prone to being exploited to such degrees. (i.e. a Jewish slave who sells himself can support his family without resorting to crime, one sold by the court for theft can undergo rehabilitation – leading a productive and disciplined lifestyle, the non Jewish slave can become refined through the example of Jewish morality and Jewish observance, which he becomes obligated by, etc…)
This approach is a penetrating and complex one which carries a strong moral call to every generation but also includes a disturbing patronizing attitude as well (to put it mildly…).

A third approach to the question, which I would like to suggest is based on Rav Kook’s discussion of the obligation to annihilate Amalek and the moral dilemma this Mitzvah poses. He writes the following:

“The prevention of possibility is to us a testimony of Hashem’s will and prevention of will has many forms, sometimes a practical prevention like the fear of the ruling nations and sometimes a spiritual prevention. We are pleased when such preventions exist, as we recognize that such is the will of the divine providence in such times”.
Rav Kook says something tremendously daring – it is not a coincidence that in a generation when the idea of genocide is deplorable we happen to not know who Amalek is, thus preventing us from fulfilling the Mitzvah, even if we wanted to. Through the moral development of human kind and the ‘mixing of the nations’ which has erased the existence of an identifiable Amalekite nation, the application of this Mitzvah and all the Halachot that go with it is no longer an active part of our observance, nor do we yearn for their renewal.
We accept the impossibility of this Mitzvah’s observance as a positive expression of a more developed state of humankind and The Jewish People. Through history and circumstance, Hashem has turned the Mitzvah of annihilating Amalek from a practical, physical, one to a spiritual and symbolic one.
This idea has far reaching implications with the obvious questions being – how and who can decide that the physical and/or spiritual inability to observe something translates into testimony that it is no longer divinely desired and that we should be happy about it? what other Mitzvot could you apply this idea to (Animal sacrifices? Mamzerim? not saving a non Jew on Shabbat? women’s role in Jewish society?)
These are excellent questions for a different time but I would suggest applying it, in the meantime, to slavery in the Torah:
Yes, the laws of slavery were tremendously advanced in comparison to slavery in the ancient – and even modern – world and yes, exploitation still exists (though to far, far lesser degrees) and yes, the regulation of slavery with normative guidelines and restrictions served as a refining element to both master and even slave, considering the alternatives.
But even so, we believe that the abolishment of slavery in humankind, especially in Western society, is divinely inspired, divinely directed and part of the moral progression of the world towards a more moral, more ideal, more holly world. The – divinely directed – impracticality of these Mitzvot is cause for tremendous optimism.

So, what are we to do with all of the Psukim, Midrashei Halacha and Halchot about slavery? am I saying – Heaven forbid – that ‘they aren’t relevant any more’***? to that I would say:
1. Talmud Torah is always relevant
2. No guarantees exist that humankind will not morally regress again (70 years ago slavery of the Jewish People would have been a blessing…)
3. Traces of slavery still exist in the world as well as shadows of it in our own society
4. There is an entire world of Chassidish and Kabalistic literature that learn from these Psukim and Halachot guidelines and directives for the inner ‘slave’ and ‘master’

I believe this third approach holds within it tremendous power, combining a traditional approach to Torah and Mitzvot with the most refined moral sensitivities and search for relevance. It is definitely the one I will be thinking about this coming Shabbat when reading the laws of slaves and slavery.

(*** What this third approach may actually mean is this: due to a variety of changes and developments, Mitzvot can become, categorically, no longer relevant as normative behaviors. But – and this is crucial – it is not us, humans, who make it no longer relevant, rather, Hashem makes them no longer relevant. This idea can be part of a larger explanation of מצוות בטלות לעתיד לבוא “In the time to come – Mitzvot will be nullified”, again – not by us, rather, by HIM through changes in humanity, be they ethnic, national, societal, psychological or moral. Deserves its own post but couldn’t help myself…)


Filed under Halacha, Morality