Thursday, October 29, 2009

Seven Year Old Torah Reader

Take a look at this video of my son, Netanel, reading from the Torah this morning. He is chanting the text according to the Sephardi-Yerushalmi melody. Although this was not his debut performance (he read the Haftara of Shabbat Shuva as well as nearly all of the additional aliyot on Simhat Torah), it was the first time reading Torah on a day that it could be recorded.

Netanel just turned seven on Monday but he has been active in helping to lead daily, Shabbat, Holiday and especially Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur services for a full year already. Our family and community are very proud of his achievements and we have been inspired by his commitment to Torah and Tefillah at such a young age.

(The tefillin he is wearing in the video are not real; they are toy tefillin designed for educational purposes only.)


Friday, September 25, 2009

Yom Kippur Poem

Visions


My eyes toward visions of God I raise


Though inner shadows obstruct my gaze


And feet that would upon God’s path have tread


Lead me far away from Him instead.


My God, I pray, do let Your wisdom’s light


Relieve me of the burden of my plight


Take heed of my sincere attempts to change


And favorable conditions thus arrange.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Treasure - A Random Poetic Selection

My Treasure


A treasure not sought after much

By elderly or youth;

A beauty not admired as such

By primitive or couth.


The satisfaction she provides

Is not for sale in stores;

No advertisements or bromides

No international tours.


The cynics and the skeptics doubt

What good she has to give;

For me she is what good’s about

And my whole reason to live.


Enjoying her the way I do

You’d think I wouldn’t share;

The truth is, if the world did too

There’d still be much to spare.


Each evening I do creep away

Enwrapped in cloak of night

And cast aside the workaday

For wisdom's sweet delight.


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tisha B'av Repost

I just revisited one of my posts from last year on the topic of Fasting and Mourning. I probably should have drawn attention to it earlier given its relevance to the observance of Tisha B'av, but I suppose it is better late than never.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tisha B'av Letter 5769

Last year, I posted the Tisha B'av message that I sent to my community on my blog. This year, I am posting a different message - this is the response I sent to an email that was distributed by one of the respected administrators of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington:


Dear XXX,
I generally appreciate your thoughtful messages and I am glad to receive them. Thank you for the time and effort that you invest in crafting these missives for the benefit of our communities. I hope you accept this response in that same spirit.
I must say that I take exception to your characterization of Tisha B’av as an “ancient fast day” and your description of the Destruction of our Temples as a positive step in the evolution of Jewish religious practice, moving us to a religion that “relies more on builders than on buildings”.
Although the observance of Tisha B’av was indeed established in “ancient” times, its message is profound and highly relevant to the modern era. And the loss of the Temple, which may appear like progress to the uninitiated, was an unspeakable tragedy for the Jewish people.
If you read the prayer of King Solomon at the dedication of the First Temple, which appears in the Book of Kings, you will see that the Bet Hamiqdash was not merely a physical structure in which certain arcane religious services were carried out. In fact, the sacrificial service was not the ultimate purpose of the existence of the Sanctuary – it was a minor facet of its operation.
The Temple was a symbol of Jewish national unity and the abiding relationship between Israel and the Creator of the Universe. It was a reflection of the fact that, while we may disagree on many things, we share a fundamental set of values and priorities that inspire and guide us all. It was a place that all the nations of the world would visit for instruction and education on matters of intellectual, moral and ethical import.
Nowadays, our people is quite literally lost. We no longer have great Sages to provide us with an understanding of our Torah that is decisive and compelling, so our sons and daughters exempt themselves from “Jewish studies” as quickly as possible and pursue other intellectual disciplines that are perceived as more rigorous, relevant and financially rewarding.
We no longer have a Sanctuary to visit and reaffirm our identities as Jews – a unique nation with a unique conception of God and a unique way of life that reflects our commitment to Him. The proliferation of multiple “movements” in Judaism has subdivided our nation in every possible way, leaving the definition of Judaism itself unclear and confusing.
We are busy competing with the nations of the world for material prosperity and physical pleasures, admiring – indeed, practically worshiping - the celebrities in Hollywood and the power brokers in Washington, meanwhile all but turning a deaf ear and a blind eye to the injustices that abound in our society. Instead of crowding into the Temple to observe the High Priest and the scholars of Torah in worship – an inspiring vision of holiness that would perhaps motivate us to better our lives and enrich our souls – we crowd into football stadiums and auditoriums to have our superficiality reinforced by individuals who profit off of our cluelessness.
Your concern with ethical lapses is valid and praiseworthy, but ethical lapses do not appear in a vacuum. They emerge from a materialistic orientation to the world that is alienated from any transcendent purpose. One who is occupied with the pursuit of wisdom and is disinterested in accumulating wealth, honor and status will not behave unethically. Only a person attached to such things will compromise his or her principles to acquire them.
Take, for example, the fact that our own JCC is open on Shabbat. What values and priorities does this policy reflect? What sense of Jewish identity, history or destiny does it manifest? It is a tragic instance of the subordination of the spiritual to the pragmatic, and of the transcendent to the mundane. Perhaps closing the JCC on Shabbat would be a positive step in the right direction for our community. I know many non-observant Jews who would nevertheless be happy to see such a sanctification of God’s name take place. Maybe it would inspire more acts of sacrifice, more setting aside of immediate and expedient gratification for the sake of noble and eternal ends.
The return to Zion and rebuilding of the Temple that we pray for is not the product of a nationalistic vision. It is a yearning for a different kind of society, a global civilization free from the chains of self-indulgence, materialism and treachery that are imposed upon us by movies, television, and, yes, our very own schools and synagogues!
These institutions unfortunately instill in us an insatiable desire for “success”, a distaste for the wisdom of tradition and a craving for the respect of our fellow citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish. Our attachment to the petty “goods” of this society is the fuel that feeds the flame of self-absorption and injustice. Our role models and leaders promote the wrong values and we are not protesting. They are stealing our souls and we are not mourning the loss, because we barely even feel it; and, if we do, we don’t care that much anyway, since a soul cannot buy us a Venti Skim Latte at Starbucks or a Mercedes Benz.
The need for a Temple is as real today as it ever was. One day, we firmly believe that it will once again stand as a symbol of the transcendent goal toward which all of humanity should be striving and as a witness to the pettiness and frivolity of materialistic pursuits. It will assign prominence to men and women of true knowledge and fine character rather than to sports figures and influence peddlers. It will provide us with a venue to teach our children, and the world, that the search for truth for its own sake is the noblest occupation for a human being, that money, titles and honor are meaningless, and that the cost of allowing human beings to suffer in this world is too great to allow us the luxuries with which we are currently all too happy to distract ourselves.
I hope that this Tisha B’av is a meaningful one for all, and that it is the first step toward the redemption of a world that surely needs it.
All the best to you and your entire family.
Sincerely,
Rabbi Joshua Maroof
Magen David Sephardic Congregation
Rockville, MD

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Is The Ninth of Av a Holiday?

One of the most fascinating practices of Tisha B'av is the omission of tahanunim. Typically, these more somber sections of prayer are omitted on festive occasions but are expanded and elaborated upon on fast days. We would expect that on Tisha B'av, the most intense and heart-wrenching fast day of the year, tahanunim would play a prominent role in the liturgy. Instead, they are purposefully left out of the order of prayer.

The commentaries explain that Tisha B'av is unique inasmuch as it is referred to in Scripture as a "moed", a holiday, and is thus entitled to the same exemption from tahanunim that is granted to other festivals. Some might assume that this means that, in the Messianic era, Tisha B'av will attain the status of a moed. The verse cited to substantiate this argument in the Book of Eikha (Lamentations), however, does not support this interpretation:

The enemy established an appointed time (moed) to destroy my young men...
What immediately strikes us about this "proof-text" is the fact that the "holiday" here is one celebrated by the enemies as they crush the Jewish people. It is difficult to see why this tragic phenomenon should serve to establish Tisha B'av as a moed for us. It is clear, though, that Tisha B'av is assigned the title of a "holiday" even now, despite the fact that its tone is far from festive.

It seems, then, that Tisha B'av is indeed a moed, a holiday in its own right. In Jewish terms, a holiday is a time consecrated to reflection on some aspect of our relationship with Hashem. On Pesah, we celebrate God's redemption of the Jewish people from bondage. On Shavuot, we rejoice in the gift of Torah knowledge with which He bestowed us. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur we acknowledge the Kingship, Sovereignty and Mercy of God. On Sukkot we recognize Him as the source of material blessing and security. Generally speaking, this reflection is conducted in an atmosphere of inspiration and joy.

Tisha B'av, however, is a holiday dedicated to reflecting upon the current state of our covenant with Hashem. It is a time set aside for contemplation of the Midat Hadin, the Divine attribute of Justice and its ramifications. Like all moadim, Tisha B'av requires us to deviate from our usual routine and gather together as a community for a transcendent objective. Like all moadim, Tisha B'av is structured around a diminished involvement in workaday activities coupled with an increased involvement in prayer and the study of relevant subject matter (in this case, Eikha, Kinot, etc.). Like all moadim, the liturgy of Tisha B'av is designed to highlight the thematic focus of the day; Tisha B'av has its own Megillah as all Festivals do, extensive kinot are recited in place of Hallel and the lessons of these texts are reinforced with carefully selected Torah and Haftara readings.

Like all moadim, the purpose of Tisha B'av observances is to focus us on specific events in our ancient or recent history so as to lead us toward a greater understanding and appreciation of Hashem's ultimate plan in the world. The events of Tisha B'av, though perpetrated against us by wicked enemies, serve the function of helping us develop a clearer perspective on the stark reality of where we stand before God as a people.

Because the theme of Tisha B'av is an assessment of our covenantal bond with God and the implications of our failure to maintain it, the outcome is a day of mourning and fasting. Were we living in accordance with the Torah and fulfilling our objective as a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation, however, the results of our Tisha B'av reflection would be as positive, exhilarating and uplifting as those of the other moadim of the year.

The Kinnot pick up on and develop this principle in the context of the link between Tisha B'av and Pesah. One of the classic Sephardic Kinot, "Aleikhem Edah Qedosha" contrasts the celebration of Pesah with the mourning of Tisha B'av, in the form of four questions that are presented to the community. The kinah includes the ironic refrain "why is this night different from all other nights?" Another Kinah, recited in Ashkenazic as well as Sephardic congregations, contrasts our experience of Divine Providence as we departed Egypt with our experience of the withdrawal of God's providence as we left Jerusalem as exiles.

Of course, the link between Tisha B'av and Pesah is doubly warranted. First of all, Pesah signifies the beginning of the Jewish nation's relationship with God, and their redemption from the tyranny of human government. This is precisely the opposite of Tisha B'av, which represents a return to pre-Exodus conditions, including subjection to human rule and an inability to perceive God's presence in the world. Second, it is a curious feature of the Jewish calendar that, in a given year, Pesah and Tisha B'av always fall out on the same day of the week, underscoring this parallel even further.

What is most noteworthy, however, is how both Pesah and Tisha B'av are days of reflection upon the fundamentals of God's relationship with His people. In one case, we celebrate the initial covenant that our ancestors in Egypt forged with Hashem and the miraculous transformation and redemption that resulted therefrom; in the other, we consider our abandonment of the selfsame covenant and mourn the current unredeemed state of our nation in exile. Surface-level differences in observance and atmosphere notwithstanding, the respective themes of Pesah and Tisha B'av are ultimately two sides of the proverbial coin.

In summary, Tisha B'av is, indeed, a Moed, in the sense that it is a period of time consecrated to reflection on our relationship with God and His Providence. In particular, Tisha B'av deals with our national covenant with Hashem and the principles of Divine Justice associated with it. No Tahanun is recited on Tisha B'av because it possesses the essential quality of a holiday, despite the fact that, in our current state, the tone of Tisha B'av is mournful and depressing.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Anger and Error

The Sages observe that, each time the Torah describes Moshe Rabbenu getting angry, he is also depicted as erring in his conduct or making a mistake in his application of halakha. The final instance of this is provided in Parashat Mattot, wherein Moshe Rabbenu becomes aggravated when he discovers that the Jewish soldiers missed the point of the military campaign against Midian and, as a result, took far too many captives. After castigating them for this oversight, Moshe provides them with a few procedural details they were expected to observe vis a vis ritual purity and departs. Elazar, the Kohen Gadol, then instructs them as to the proper method of "purging" Midianite vessels for Jewish (i.e., kosher) use. The Rabbis state that Moshe himself should have informed the soldiers of these laws; however, because he lost his temper, he forgot to do so.

Working backwards from a chronological standpoint, the second - and probably most famous - case of Moshe getting angry is when he became frustrated, struck a rock and thereby forfeited the privilege of entering the Land of Israel. The connection between loss of temper and mistake in both of these examples is clear. In the first, Moshe's anger distracted him from the need to convey important halakhic information to the soldiers. In the second situation, the fact that Moshe became flustered led him to overreact and behave impulsively, thus transgressing the commandment of Hashem.

However, there is another instance of Moshe's anger that does not fit this mold and that is, as a result, quite intriguing. In Parashat Shemini, after the sudden deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Moshe commands Aharon, Elazar and Itamar - the remaining Kohanim - to proceed with the sacrificial services as planned. However, it subsequently becomes clear that, rather than consuming one of the sin offerings - precisely which one is a subject of debate in Masekhet Zevahim, and would take us too far afield of the topic at hand - that offering was burnt. Moshe becomes angry and takes the Kohanim to task for this error. Aharon, his brother, responds to the harsh criticism and deflects the stated objections to their course of action; in the end, Moshe himself acquiesces that the Kohanim made the correct decision after all. The Rabbis point to this situation as another example of how anger can cause a wise man to make errors in halakha - Moshe became angry and, lo and behold, his halakhic analysis was proven wrong!

There is an obvious problem, however, with this observation of our rabbis; namely, in this instance, the error most definitely preceded the anger, and not the other way around. After all, it was because of Moshe Rabbenu's incorrect belief that the sin offering should be consumed that he became angry in the first place! One cannot possibly conclude that falling victim to the emotion of anger was what caused Moshe to make a mistake here; in fact, the very opposite is true. Moshe's halakhic opinion - subsequently shown to be erroneous - inspired him with the righteous indignation that he then proceeded to vent on his brother and his nephews.

(Incidentally, it is worth mentioning that, in some versions of the Midrash - for this very reason - this example is NOT cited to illustrate the principle that anger breeds intellectual error. However, the present analysis will be based on the version of the Midrash cited by Rashi, which does include the sin offering case.)

The resolution of this difficulty can be derived from a careful reading of Rashi's comments on the incident in Parashat Mattot:

Because Moshe came into the category of anger (ba likhlal kaas) he came into the category of error (ba likhlal ta-ut), such that he forgot to mention the laws of purifying vessels obtained from non-Jews. So too do we find on the eighth day of the dedication of the Mishkan, where Moshe got angry with Elazar and Itamar - he came into the category of anger (ba likhlal kaas) so he came into the category of error (ba likhlal ta-ut). Similarly, when Moshe said "hear now rebels" and struck the rock, because of anger he erred (al yedei hakaas ta-ah).

What is the meaning of the cumbersome expression "came into the category of anger" and "came into the category of error". Why not simply state that Moshe got angry, so he made a mistake! Indeed, in the last case, Rashi employs different phraseology, writing simply "because of anger he erred". If the first, more lengthy expression is more accurate, then why did Rashi see fit to change it after already using it twice?

I believe that Rashi is conveying a profound insight with his nuanced use of language. We tend to assume that the main reason that anger is harmful is because the emotional state of rage itself interferes with rational thought and prevents us from deliberating properly. This is certainly true, but there is another connection between anger and error that is less obvious at first. Anger and error both emerge from the same root cause - interpreting reality from a subjective rather than objective vantage point.

Rashi's statement that "one who comes into the category of anger comes into the category of error" means that the same orientation toward an event that has the potential to lead to anger also has the potential to lead to error, even if anger has not yet occurred. When are personally invested in a project or event, we approach it in an very emotionally sensitive manner. This means we are likely to become angry if things do not proceed according to plan. It also means that we are prone to making mistakes in our analysis of the situation that we would not have made had we been operating more objectively.

Consider the difference in how a bride approaches the planning of her wedding and the orientation of a professional caterer to the same phenomenon. The former is likely to become extraordinarily upset if her "big day" does not meet with the highly specific expectations she has established. Precisely because of this sensitivity, she is also prone to erring in her interpretation of and/or reaction to any deviations from her vision, real or imagined.

A caterer, on the other hand, is emotionally detached from the specific wedding she is managing. She surveys the circumstances from a business standpoint, and understands the steps that need to be taken to create an elegant and meaningful event for any given client. If an error is made, she may be disappointed, but she is unlikely to become enraged. Similarly, she has the intellectual objectivity to assess and resolve apparent crises effectively without committing substantial errors.

On the day of the dedication of the Mishkan, Moshe Rabbenu should have been like a caterer faithfully and objectively executing his mission. Instead, he became like a bride, personally invested in the process and therefore highly sensitive regarding any deviation from the prescribed procedures. The dedication represented the culmination of Moshe Rabbenu's spiritual stewardship of the Jewish people up to that point, and it had to be perfect. It was tragic enough that two of the sons of Aharon perished, marring the joyousness of the event. Everything else, as far as Moshe Rabbenu was concerned, had to be in strict compliance with the specific vision he had in mind.

The subjective orientation he had to the consecration of the Mishkan led him to think rigidly about the mitsvot involved, to become attached to a highly particular way that things "had to be" and, in the end, to get angry with the sons of Aharon when they deviated from the plan he envisioned. What he failed to realize was that, because he had become so personally involved in the situation, he had unwittingly erred in his analysis of the relevant halakhot.

The same circumstance obtained with regard to the war with Midian. Here again, the situation at hand was of enormous personal significance to Moshe Rabbenu. It was his final act of leadership of the Jewish people, the sealing of his legacy for all generations. Ideally, Moshe should have liberated himself from this highly subjective framework of thought and considered matters from a purely objective standpoint. He may still have reprimanded the soldiers upon their return, but without losing his temper.

Instead, he allowed his personal investment in the battle to color his perception of the war, and he became angry when it did not meet with the expectations he had formed. His loss of an objective perspective also manifested itself in the fact that he did not fully address all of the halakhic issues that were relevant in the aftermath of the battle. He focused on maintaining the sanctity of the camp and the Miqdash - areas of the highest priority for him as religious leader - but neglected matters of practical import for the soldiers themselves, such as how to purify the vessels they had captured from Midian for kosher use.

The exception to this pattern was the case of striking the rock, in which Moshe Rabbenu, because of his personal frustration with the Jewish people and their recalcitrance, misinterpreted their complaints as rebellious in nature and became angry. This anger led him to deviate - not in thought, but in action - from the command of Hashem. The emotion of rage overwhelmed him and influenced his behavior. In the words of Rashi, in this circumstance, "al yedei kaas, ta-ah" - because of anger, he erred.

We see then how, with only a few carefully chosen words, Rashi explains to us the complex relationship between anger and error. Sometimes, it is a simple matter of cause and effect. The passionate state of rage that overtakes us impairs our judgment and we behave inappropriately, as Moshe did in the case of the rock.

However, there are times when anger and intellectual errors can emerge simultaneously from a more fundamental source - our subjective investment in the outcome of a certain process or event. In these cases, both phenomena are ultimately traceable to the mental framework through which we have chosen to perceive a given situation. Thus, oftentimes anger and intellectual carelessness appear together because they share a common origin, and not necessarily because one is the direct cause of the other. A person prone to getting angry about something is equally prone to make mistakes about it.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Three Cardinal Sins

The Talmud (Yoma 9B) tells us that the first Bet Hamiqdash was destroyed because of three grave sins that had become widespread in Israel - idolatry, sexual immorality and murder. What is remarkable about this description of the failings that lead to the destruction of the First Temple is that the very same trio of sins plays a significant role in another connection.

As a general principle, a Jew whose life is endangered as a result of Torah observance is commanded to violate the laws of the Torah rather than perish. However, there are three exceptions to this rule; no matter what the circumstances, even to save his life, a Jew is never permitted to engage in idolatry, illicit sexual relations or homicide. These commandments represent the core values of Judaism - the Unity of God, the intrinsic sanctity of human life, and our mandate to transcend our base instincts so as to promote those ideals.

Ordinary mitsvot are means to an end, they are designed to help us make the most out of our lives. Thus, it would be absurd to sacrifice our lives on their account. This would transform them from contructive tools of perfection into agents of destruction.

On the other hand, the three core sins embody the metaphysical principles of Judaism, they are outward expressions of our inner convictions about God and human nature. They are not means to an end - they point to the end itself. As such, unlike the remaining commandments of the Torah, they are not expendable under any circumstances. To compromise on them, even for a moment, would be to contradict the fundamentals of our belief, the values that make life itself worth living.

Casting these ideas aside for the sake of physical existence would be a travesty, as it would imply that our individual biological/instinctual life is an object of value in its own right whose preservation takes precedence over the affirmation of God's existence and/or His relationship with mankind. This is a hillul Hashem, a desecration of God's name, because it ascribes greater significance to material reality than metaphysical reality.The mitzvah of Qiddush Hashem, on the other hand, directs us to promote quite the opposite perspective - namely, that the metaphysical is of ultimate value, utterly transcending and even trumping the material, the particular, and the mundane.

Therefore, as the Rambam explains in the Laws of the Fundamentals of the Torah, sacrificing one's life for the sake of observing these mitsvot is a fulfillment of the commandment to sanctify God's name, as it is written in the Torah, "and I shall be sanctified in the midst of the Children of Israel." A Jew who violates one of these precepts in order to preserve his life is considered to have desecrated God's name through his surrender.

With this in mind, we can perhaps understand why it is the three "cardinal sins" that were responsible for the destruction of the Bet Hamiqdash. The Torah states in several places in the books of Shemot, Vayiqra and Devarim, that the ultimate purpose of the Miqdash was to provide a vehicle for communal "Qiddush Hashem" - hence the name "miqdash", which is derived from the term for sanctity or holiness. The Kohanim are commanded to sanctify God's name through their religious service, Torah teaching, and personal conduct. The edifice of the Sanctuary was designed to inspire visitors with love and reverence for the Creator of the Universe.

The Miqdash's function of sanctifying Hashem's name, however, can only be achieved when it is situated amidst a nation that is dedicated to that objective. It was designed as a means to the end of Qiddush Hashem - an institution through which the Jewish people were to accomplish their collective aim. As such, the Miqdash must be in the "right hands" for its potential to be actualized. A nation engaged in activities that are the very negation of qiddush Hashem cannot possibly appreciate, maintain or participate in the operation of a Sanctuary that is consecrated to the lofty end of elevating humanity's consciousness of God.

Therefore, it is perfectly understandable why the Jews lost the privilege of a Holy Temple as soon as they demonstrated a complete lack of commitment to Qiddush Hashem and engaged in idolatry, illicit sexual behavior and murder. These grave sins clearly indicated the alienation of the Jewish people from the core principles of Torah, principles for which one would ordinarily sacrifice one's life, and, therefore, a total disconnection from the purpose for which the Miqdash was brought into existence in the first place.

When the Jewish people abandoned their mission of Qiddush Hashem, they effectively transformed the Temple's operation into a desecration rather than a sanctification of Hashem's name. Tragically, the Miqdash was now misconstrued as an emblem of God's purported endorsement of the metaphysically bankrupt lifestyle of the Jewish people rather than a source of inspiration that would encourage them to transcend their petty pursuits.

The Jews' wanton disregard for the real objective of the Miqdash created a situation in which the Miqdash could no longer function properly and in which - since its true nature was ignored or distorted - it would, as an institution, inevitably be hijacked for corrupt purposes. The destruction of the Bet Hamiqdash, and its absence from our nation to this day, is the ultimate indication that we are not yet prepared to embrace the noble mission of Qiddush Hashem for which Hashem chose our forefathers.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

My Response to Yated Ne'eman

On July 10th, Yated Ne'eman, a well-known Orthodox newspaper, published a scathing critique of Open Orthodoxy and YCT with a special focus on the issue of women's ordination. A significant portion of the article was devoted to attacking me personally. In response, I sent the following letter to Yated Ne'eman, which I am hopeful that they will publish in its entirety:


Dear Editors,

The July 10th issue of Yated Ne’eman contained an article by Yisroel Lichter on the subject of “Open Orthodoxy” and women’s ordination in which my views, affiliations and public statements were completely and shockingly misrepresented. I was deeply pained by the fact that these false and inflammatory rumors about me were disseminated in Yated Ne'eman, a newspaper avidly read and respected by my rabbaim, my chaverim and myself. I thank you in advance for allowing me this opportunity to correct the misunderstandings and distortions that were conveyed in that article. I hope that, for the sake of honesty and fairness, my response will be printed in the Yated in an unedited and uncensored form.

Throughout his article, Mr. Lichter portrayed me as a radical member of the “Open Orthodox” movement, referring to me as a “left-wing fringe element” no different than a Conservative or Reform rabbi. The reality is that I have absolutely no connection whatsoever to Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and I categorically reject “Open Orthodox” ideology.


I exclusively identify myself with the Center-Right/Yeshivish segment of Orthodox Judaism. Indeed, the speech I delivered at Sara Hurwitz’s ceremony - from which select quotes were reproduced and maligned by Mr. Lichter – I mentioned twice that “I hail from the right wing of Orthodoxy”. This particular phrase was unfortunately omitted from the Yated article; however, my affiliation is well known to those who have had personal contact with me, including many representatives of Open Orthodoxy, who would be surprised to learn that I am being labeled a left-wing radical by the press.

If I were a left-wing fringe rabbi, then being condemned in Yated Ne’eman would not matter to me. The reason I am so deeply upset about the unfairness of your article – an article that asserted, in black and white, that I am not even entitled to the benefit of the doubt – is because I am very far from being a leftist. I feel as if I have been dragged through the mud in full view of my own community without so much as a chance to respond to the allegations being made against me.

Mr. Lichter claimed that I have a history of advocating controversial positions on women’s issues and that, therefore, I lack credibility. While I cannot speak for the other rabbis who were criticized in this vein in the article – I am unfamiliar with their backgrounds in this respect – I can say that this is patently false with regard to me. The only area in which I have promoted the cause of women in particular has been the area of Torah study, and the only public pronouncements I have made about this subject are the ones referenced in your article. I have neither adopted nor espoused any radical or controversial halakhic positions on this or any related topic. I have never been involved in or associated with any organizations, projects or activities devoted to the advancement of a liberal agenda.

My perspective on women’s issues was misrepresented in your paper and many of my statements were taken out of context. The author of the article implied that I dismissed great Torah luminaries as “dogmatic” or “anti-women” because of their opposition to the notion of women holding positions of communal leadership. However, in my written teshuva, which the Yated regrettably refused to publish but which is readily available online, I explicitly cited and affirmed the Rambam’s view that serara (political leadership) is prohibited to women. Of the three teshuvot utilized by Rabbi Weiss to support his initiative, mine was the only responsum to do this; sadly, this very significant distinction was overlooked by Mr. Lichter. Anyone who examines my words carefully will see that my premises, arguments and conclusions are fully consistent with the rulings of Rav Moshe Feinstein Z”L, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Z”L, and other gedolei Torah.

All of my comments regarding expanding the range of leadership opportunities for women were made exclusively with reference to the study and teaching of Torah, and had nothing to do with women’s ordination or their employment in synagogues. In this regard, the thoughts I expressed find broad support in the writings of many Torah giants, including but not limited to the Tosafot in Masekhet Nidda, the Sefer Ha-Hinukh, the Hida in Birke Yosef, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Z”L, Rabbi Ben-Tsion Meir Hai Uziel Z”L, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Z”L, and former Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel Rishon Letsion Rav Mordechai Eliyahu.Granted, there may be differences of opinion on some aspects of this issue, but my position is a far cry from heresy.

Surely Miriam, Devorah and Hulda were well-versed in every area of Torah and halakha and provided instruction and guidance to Am Yisrael in their time. All of these women must have received a thorough education in Torah Shebichtav and Torah Shebal Peh and were certainly counted among the premiere Torah authorities of their age. Beruriah, the wife of Rabbi Meir, Chava, the grandmother of the Chavot Yair, and Rebbetzin Bayla, the wife of the Derisha, were similarly recognized and praised for their outstanding erudition. Is this not sufficient precedent for the notion that an inspired woman can achieve great heights in Torah scholarship and can serve as a role model and teacher for her people – provided, of course, that the halakhic principles of modesty and propriety, as well as restrictions on serarah, are observed?

While I realize that, without the benefit of context, some of my remarks could have been misinterpreted by the casual reader, they were not intended to have any radical or, chas veshalom, disrespectful implications. I was speaking in an impassioned manner of the value of Torah learning and my hope that its beauty be made available to a wider audience – men and women - across all segments of Orthodoxy. Moreover, I expressed my wish that scholarly women – again, both Modern Orthodox and Charedi - who excel in the study of Torah be granted the opportunity to teach and inspire other Jews rather than being disenfranchised or having their accomplishments discounted because of their gender.

Let me clarify that the criticisms contained in my speech were directed at people who - because of bias or preconceived notions - try to prevent G-d fearing women from learning and contributing to communal leadership even in halakhically permissible ways. My point was to condemn those who oppose women’s involvement in Torah study regardless of its halakhic legitimacy. Contrary to the accusations of Mr. Lichter, I did not intend to cast aspersions – chas veshalom - on individuals whose reservations and objections are firmly rooted in halakha and based purely on Shas and Shulchan Aruch, such as the great poskim of the past and present.

My participation in Sara Hurwitz’s ceremony was motivated by my desire to acknowledge her significant attainments in Torah study and to celebrate the fact that women with Torah knowledge can have a positive and lasting impact on the spiritual growth of our communities, provided that they operate within the framework of halakha. If my presence at that event was misconstrued as a tacit endorsement of Open Orthodoxy, its institutions or its peculiar interpretations of Jewish law, then I am profoundly regretful of my decision to attend.

I thank you again for allowing me to provide this clarification of my ideological affiliations, halakhic opinions and actions for the benefit of the Yated readership..

Sincerely Yours,

Rabbi Joshua Maroof

Rockville, Maryland

Monday, May 11, 2009

Rabbi Lamm on Women's Issues

From the Jerusalem Post:

Regarding the ordination of female rabbis, Lamm said his opposition was "social, not religious."

"Change has to come to religion when feasible, but it should not be rushed. Women have just come into their own from an educational perspective. I would prefer not to have this innovation right now. It is simply too early. What will happen later... I am not a prophet."

This essentially corroborates my own views as referenced in a mildly controversial JTA article a couple of months ago. It is a matter of public policy and not halakha, and - as has been widely discussed in the J-Blogosphere - most Orthodox Rabbis are aware of this fact.