Saturday, November 10, 2012

Invocation for Veterans Day 2012

I was honored to be invited by the City of Rockville to deliver the invocation at the Veterans Day Ceremony tomorrow. Here is the text I composed for the occasion:

Almighty God, we gather today to honor the beloved veterans of the Armed Forces of the United States of America, brave men and women who have fought valiantly to defend our freedoms and to preserve our liberties. We are humbled by their commitment, their patriotism and their courage.  We are inspired by their selfless sacrifices and their indomitable spirit.  
Please God, grant our veterans strength and support so that they may continue to serve as examples of true heroism for us and for our children. Heal those who have been wounded physically or emotionally and comfort those who have suffered loss. Bless the faithful and devoted families of our veterans with good health and success; watch over them and protect them always.

As for the citizens of this great Nation, implant in our hearts wisdom, discernment and compassion, so that we may acknowledge and appreciate all that we have received from our veterans and so that we pay fitting tribute to their service. May we be ever mindful of our obligation to treat them with the full measure of respect to which their deeds have entitled them. Let us never take our lives, our freedoms or our civil rights for granted.
As for our active servicemen and women, wherever they may be - on land, in the air or at sea - protect them, shield them, and bring them home to their families speedily and unharmed. Let their battles for the sake of human dignity, justice and democracy be victorious, and may their principled and noble conduct illuminate our world and enlighten its inhabitants.

As for those revered men and women who have lost their lives in service to our country, bless their souls and their memories forever. Preserve their names, their families and the legacy of their heroism for generations to come. Console the bereaved – parents, spouses, siblings and children left behind - who continue to mourn their absence.
We seek not war but peace, not discord, but harmony and brotherhood. Creator of the Universe Who makes Peace on High, do not let the sacrifices of our veterans be in vain.  Help the United States of America to lead its fellow nations in the quest for true and lasting peace on Earth, and may we be fortunate enough to witness the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

 May this be the will of God, and let us say, Amen.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Washington Jewish Week on Marriage Equality

As you may or may not know, in the State of Maryland, several referendum questions will be presented to voters in the ballot box on Election Day. Question #6 asks the voter whether he or she supports "marriage equality" - in other words, whether we believe that the government should grant gay marriage the same status and recognition as traditional marriage in our state. 

In its latest edition, the Washington Jewish Week ran a piece entitled "The Kashrut of The Questions", in which members of the staff attempt to identify the proper "text-based" and/or "Jewish" way to vote on several of the issues (a number of them, including one that will further legalize gambling and allow casinos to operate in Maryland, have a moral as well as a political dimension). 

It is worth a quick read of the piece to get a sense of the surprisingly cavalier approach that was taken to these very sensitive subjects. To the casual reader it is immediately obvious that, rather than research these topics from a Torah standpoint, the authors made up their own minds and then searched for Jewish texts and/or scholars to support their opinions.On the issue of "Question #6", for example, the paper unequivocally states that the Torah and Jewish community fully supports marriage equality and that those who want to vote Jewishly based on Jewish texts should support it...In response, I wrote this:

Dear Editor,

I was profoundly dismayed to read the pre-election editorial piece in which your staff presented their conclusions as to the proper and text-based "Jewish view" on the various referendum questions that are set to be decided by Marylanders in the ballot box this Election Day.

In particular, I thought it was irresponsible and inappropriate for the Washington Jewish Week to speak for the "Jewish Community" and "the Torah" in its support for so-called marriage equality, without mentioning so much as a single dissenting viewpoint.

While correct in noting that companionship is a value promoted by the Torah, the author of the column failed to mention the most basic principle of all - namely, the fact that the homosexual lifestyle is clearly and unequivocally forbidden by Jewish law, both for Jews and Gentiles.

It is unfair and offensive of the paper to claim to represent the Jewish community as a whole - which should include those among us who are Orthodox, traditional and Sephardic - when its political and ideological views are squarely at odds with many of ours.

Personally, I am opposed to discrimination and prejudice in all forms and I strongly condemn any and all gay-bashing. I believe that all American citizens should enjoy the same civil rights and that our government should establish rules and regulations for domestic partnerships (not marriages) that do not involve endorsing, validating or rejecting anyone's values, inclinations or personal choices. I would prefer if our legislatures didn't handle marriage at all, restricting themselves to civil and domestic arrangements and leaving concepts like "marriage" to religious and social orders to define and regulate.

Moreover, I support efforts to make sure that Jews of all backgrounds and orientations have a home in the synagogue, whether or not their lifestyles are consistent with the principles upon which it is founded.

Nevertheless, I stand by the Torah's definition of marriage and believe that it is an eternal, universal and inviolable one. I do not believe that it is the government's place to redefine a sacred and time-honored institution by legislation or referendum in this manner. And I know that I speak on behalf of many laypersons and leaders of the Orthodox and Sephardic community as well.

In the future, kindly refrain from implying that the views and opinions of your editorial staff accurately represent those of the Torah or the Jewish community and please do not encourage people to act or vote based on a vision of Judaism that is purely your own and with which many of us vehemently disagree.

Sincerely Yours, 

Rabbi Joshua Maroof

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Derekh Hokhma - The Way of Wisdom

I am pleased to present my translation of Derekh Hokhma, The Way of Wisdom, written by the illustrious Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto. Rabbi Luzzatto, better known as the Ramchal, is perhaps most famous for his classic ethical work, Mesilat Yesharim. In Derekh Hokhma, which is structured as a dialogue between a teacher and a student, the Ramchal lays out a philosophy and methodology of Torah study that clarifies the purpose of learning and the proper prioritization of subject matter therein.

After discussing his general vision he works out the particulars of which subjects and texts should be learned, why they should be learned, in what order they should be learned, according to what method they should be learned and to what extent each respective area should be learned.

It is a brief and deceptively simple work that is enormously insightful; it is a guide to Torah Study the same way that Mesilat Yesharim is a guide to ethical and religious conduct. You can find my translation here

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Rabbi's Elephant

Many people have already viewed  "The Rabbi's Daughter", a moving film that offers the viewer a glimpse of the lives of three young women whose fathers are prominent Orthodox Rabbis but who themselves are no longer religiously observant. The movie is powerful and should not be missed. One cannot help but feel empathy for the estranged daughters who struggle to remain connected with and win acceptance from their families as well as for the parents who must be profoundly disappointed in their children's choices yet continue to love and support them.

Commentary on the video has astutely observed that the Rabbinic fathers are cast in a rather positive light as sensitive and caring parents. Others have pointed out that at least two of the three daughters featured in the film have strong artistic, even "hippie-like" tendencies, and that these qualities may have made any attempt to fit them into the Orthodox mold an even greater challenge.

However, no one has yet addressed the most obvious and most troubling issue of all, the elephant sitting smugly in the corner of the room: All three children showcased in the movie are daughters, not sons.

These young women are expected to dress a certain way and to behave a certain way. The external measures of conformity for Orthodox women are very strict. A woman's irreligiosity is palpable and perceivable - all she needs to do is wear pants or short sleeves, for example, and anyone who sees her will immediately conclude that she has left the Orthodox fold.

Were any of these daughters not a daughter but a son, he could conceal his ideological departure from the belief system of his family with little more than a baseball cap. Men who leave Orthodoxy can hide it with minimal effort and probably do, keeping their changes of heart to themselves.

But there is another, more significant aspect to this disturbing picture. After all, a "rabbi's son" is held to higher standards and experiences communal pressure just like a "rabbi's daughter"; however, for the son, there are benefits as well - he is held in high esteem as well!

The son may decide to follow in his father's footsteps and become a rabbi, teacher or community leader. He can pursue Torah learning opportunities of the highest caliber, attend the best yeshivot and perhaps one day inherit his father's position. There is a place for a rabbi's son in the Orthodox community.

The male offspring of a rabbi experience more than just the pressure, restrictions and standards that their female counterparts endure. Expectations of greatness are formed, hopes are hoped and dreams are dreamt for the rabbi's son and what he may become.

Not so for the rabbi's daughter. She is not held up on any pedestal, except insofar as marriage prospects are concerned. She is not hailed as a scholar or a prodigy. Her position in the rabbi's family doesn't prepare her for or lead her down any clear career path. For obvious reasons, she would be discouraged from and even condemned for  considering anything remotely similar to the career path of her father.

This, I believe, is the crux of the problem. Where is the rabbi's daughter to go? What place is there for her in the Orthodox world? Beyond the responsibilities, the pressure, and the stress of growing up with the label "rabbi's daughter" permanently emblazoned upon her identity, what does she have to show for it, where does it leave her?

It is particularly ironic that the same week "The Rabbi's Daughter" is making waves on the Internet, Rav Aviner - who is prominently and sympathetically featured, with his daughter Tamar, in the video - is also in the news for this.

I have tremendous respect for Rav Aviner and it is not for me to criticize his halakhic analysis (as a Sephardic Rabbi, I follow the view of Chief Sephardic Rishon Letsion HaRav Uzziel Z"L that it is permitted for women to serve in the government as democratically elected representatives). However, from a philosophical perspective, it is hard to overlook the connection between these media reports. After all, it stands to reason that Rav Aviner's view of women in general has exerted an influence on the way in which he has raised and educated his daughter. This, in turn, has undoubtedly contributed to the spiritual and emotional dilemma in which his daughter now finds herself.

There is little room for doubt that barring women from the world of Torah and denying them the opportunity to contribute their spiritual talents to our communities in some recognized capacity is a disservice to them. Truthfully, all of our daughters are at an innate disadvantage because of our failure or our tacit refusal to make room for them in our midst.

Precisely because of the fact that so many doors are open to women in our society and so many other options are made available to them, we cannot content ourselves with moving over a little so that they can squeeze in at the far end of someone else's bench. That's as good as saying "you can rest here temporarily but you're not really welcome here, find somewhere else to sit as soon as possible."

Instead, we must identify and sanctify a bona fide place for Orthodox Jewish women, a spiritual path and destination that belongs to them and that grants them the dignity of belonging, a goal for which they can yearn and an objective toward which they can strive.

Otherwise, the highly talented young women of this generation will find their potential both unacknowledged and unfulfilled and will feel themselves stifled, frustrated and shut out of our community. And if there is one lesson we can learn from the video, it is that, in the end, the Rabbis' daughters will suffer the most.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Why The "Bar Mitzvah" Must Go

It is a well-known fact that many families maintain their synagogue membership only to ensure that their children will be able to have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony when they come of age. This is particularly true among non-traditional or generally unaffiliated Jews; parents who are disinterested in religion per se may still feel a sense of obligation to see to it that their offspring experience this rite of passage in one form or another, and that means joining a congregation of some sort.

Without a doubt, the draw of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah provides an opportunity for the synagogue community to connect with and engage many children and adults who would otherwise have no involvement with Judaism, Jewish learning or Jewish practice. In this sense, the conventional institution of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a positive thing; at the very least, it persuades Jews who are quite distant from their religion to enter the realm of Jewish community and participate in synagogue life.

Nevertheless, it is equally well-known that many such families abruptly terminate their involvement with their chosen congregations as soon as the Bar/Bat Mitzvah obligation has been met. The event has no discernible long-term effects. Most of the time, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah child, now a young man or woman, has not been inspired to continue his/her attendance at services or study of Torah.

On the contrary, it is frequently the case that the "graduate" of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah course is left with an antipathy to synagogue, is haunted by terrible memories of the stress, rote drilling and gloom associated with the demands of practice and preparation for the big day,  and is tremendously relieved to know that it is all over.

Why is it that the Jewish community routinely botches this golden opportunity to engage unaffiliated families? Why is it that we fail to inspire the youngsters in our Hebrew Schools and Bar/Bat Mitzvah classes? How come this momentous rite of passage that our children absolutely MUST experience (or endure) leaves them running away from, instead of running in pursuit of, more Judaism and more Torah?

I believe the problem is not the concept of the Bar Mitzvah, but the conventional form of the Bar Mitzvah: specifically, the notion that the student's goal should be to memorize and chant the Torah portion and Haftara and then deliver a token speech. One need not look far beyond the surface to see that the Bar Mitzvah ceremonies of today do not reflect and actually contradict many of the values that we teach and emphasize in Torah contexts. The format of the Bar Mitzvah fails us in three respects:

1. Improper Emphasis on Public Performance - Today's Bar Mitzvah is all about showbusiness and pageantry. (I am speaking of the synagogue service, not the ridiculously lavish parties, the shallowness of which speaks for itself.) The Bar Mitzvah is preparing for a well-attended public performance during which he will showcase himself. The personal growth, knowledge and character of the Bar Mitzvah are not highlighted. The focus is exclusively on the external trappings of religion, even when those superficial trappings are entirely devoid of substance.

Moreover, in Orthodox, traditional and Sephardic synagogues, this transforms the Bar Mitzvah into a ceremony of exclusion - boys have the opportunity to "shine", to do what everyone seems to think is important and worthy of effusive accolades, while girls are summarily denied that privilege. This problem has sent many Modern Orthodox in search of creative ways to allow young women to participate in synagogue services in a more public fashion; however, as I have argued previously, I do not think this is the correct approach.

2. Meaningless Preparation - I spend several hours a week preparing students for Bar Mitzvah at my synagogue, and several hours more lamenting what a waste of time it is. The process of repetition and rote memorization is boring and spiritually deadening for both student and teacher. There is no intellectual stimulation, no give-and-take, no excitement. It doesn't lead the learner to a deeper connection with Torah nor to an understanding of the significance of the portion being read. It is the ultimate example of a מצות אנשים מלומדה, a mindless regimen performed out of habit, which our Prophets continually warned us against. And it is the visceral distaste for this painful and empty routine that sends young men running from the synagogue once their Bar Mitzvah is over!

3. No Lasting Results - Teaching a youngster once a week for a year so that he can read one parasha or haftara seems like quite an accomplishment. When the resulting performance is a flawless one, lots of praise is heaped on the performer and his tutor. However, in reality, it is all a disheartening illusion. The Bar Mitzvah has gained nothing enduring from his year of study. He hasn't emerged a better person or a better Jew. He hasn't internalized any knowledge that will enrich his life, deepen his thought or inform his conduct. The skill he has spent one year acquiring will quickly evaporate from lack of practice and lack of interest. On the off chance that he shows up on the same Shabbat in subsequent years, he may be able to provide an encore performance - but even that is never quite as good as the first one, it is rusty from neglect.

 For these three reasons and more, I am calling upon the leaders of the Jewish community to abolish the format of the "Bar Mitzvah" as we know it. It will be difficult; we will likely meet with fierce resistance. The synagogue "stage parents" who have patiently awaited their children's moment in the limelight will find much to oppose in this suggestion. But if we are genuinely concerned with the future of the Jewish people and we are committed to saving the next generation of young men and women, it is incumbernt upon us to act now!

What will replace the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremonies? How can we merely dispense with such an important rite of passage, a signature life cycle event in our communities? I would like to suggest the following:

Instead of a performance, instead of preparing a child for twelve months so that he can read a parasha for less than an hour, let's require every Bat/Bat Mitzvah student to participate in a course of serious Torah study for one full year.

We can require the boys and girls in our communities to study - at the very minimum - their entire Bar/Bat Mitzvah parasha (or some other relevant Jewish text, as deemed appropriate) in depth, with the Rabbi or a qualified tutor, and to explore its themes, its commentaries, its difficulties, its message...How beautiful it would be were a Bar or Bat Mitzvah to have the experience of genuine one-on-one Torah study, guided by a seasoned teacher, once a week for a whole year! What a transformative process it would have the potential to be, how it would encourage intellectual exchange and the formation of close bonds between student and tutor/rabbi, and how it would engage the mind, heart and soul of the youngster with Judaism and Jewishness at a level we can hardly imagine...

This would be a worthwhile and substantial investment in the child and their relationship with Torah and would be an outstanding substitute for the enormous but ultimately futile investments we have already been making in the "Bar Mitzvah" - an event that unfortunately makes little or no contribution to the religious education or Jewish identity of the participants.

This revolutionary approach to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah would yield the following benefits:

1. The Concept of Siyum - The completion of a course of Torah study would be a true occasion for celebration. Putting all pomp, circumstance and pageantry aside, it would signify a real graduation, a new stage of growth reached in the intellectual and spiritual life of the student.

2. Relationships Formed - The Bar/Bat Mitzvah would have the opportunity to form a deep and lasting bond with his/her teacher. Rather than a simple, mechanical "tutoring" arrangement that ends with the passage of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah date, the shared experience of Torah study and the exchange of ideas would foster a relationship with the potential to withstand the test of time - the tutor is now a mentor, a confidante. The possibility that student and teacher might stay in touch for decades afterward and continue to interact with one another meaningfully is not at all far-fetched.

3. Authentic Experience - This model of Bar/Bat Mitzvah training would expose the child to the beauty of Torah and Judaism in all of its richness, with no repetitive, brain-numbing practice to carry out at home. It would open the mind and heart of the pupil to everything Judaism has to offer, in an intimate, warm, one-on-one setting.

4. Meaningful Results - The insights gained in Torah study may stay with a student for a lifetime. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah will walk away with new ideas, principles and values that he or she can apply to real-life situations inside and outside of the synagogue. And when the students experience the sheer enjoyment of Torah study and intellectual discovery, when they associate Judaism with something positive, enduring and exciting, the chance that they will return for more is increased a thousandfold.

 In fact, teaching Torah is the most effective marketing strategy we have in our arsenal - when we allow the children to see for themselves just how amazing, powerful and transformational Torah knowledge can be, there is reason to believe that they will diligently seek it rather than run from it.

5. Egalitarian - This model of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, because it is based on Torah study and not on public performance, is naturally and ideally suited to both boys and girls, even in a strictly traditional setting. The same effort and investment will be expected from both genders, and the same genuinely positive outcomes will be sought. Torah learning is the greatest equalizer as well as the greatest wellspring of nourishment and inspiration for the Jewish soul.

Simply put, the conventional "Bar Mitzvah" must go!

I realize that this proposal may seem radical to some. I am fully prepared to hear comments and constructive criticism from the readership. In fact, I encourage it and look forward to it. I am hopeful that the observations and suggestions that I have laid out here will serve as the beginning of a critical discussion about Jewish education, Jewish continuity and what steps we must take to ensure that our sacred traditions are preserved and successfully transmitted to the next generation.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Torah, Science and Women's Issues

In the latest post on Hirhurim, Rabbi Raphael Davidovich responds to Rabbi Broyde's recent article on Women's Torah reading with a basic ideological critique. He accuses Rabbi Broyde of essentially burying his head in the sand of halakhic minutiae rather than confronting the ideological and theological erosion taking place in Modern Orthodoxy right before his eyes.

While halakhic analysis of what is permitted or forbidden for women in the context of Orthodoxy is certainly welcome, Rabbi Davidovich argues that it sidesteps the more fundamental issue - namely, the fact that what many modern Orthodox Jews really have a problem with is not the specific halakhic parameters being followed but one of the foundational teachings of the Written and Oral Torah themselves.

 In other words, they are disputing, disparaging and dismissing the idea - codified and canonized in our tradition - that men and women are different and are, as a result, subject to different rules, regulations and obligations. Rabbi Davidovich brings much persuasive evidence for the fact that the Torah does, indeed, enshrine a very specific vision of men, women and their roles in society and in the world, as well as in their relationships with one another and with Hashem.

I have already weighed in on the issue of increased ritual participation for women. I strongly oppose it; I would much rather see increased Torah learning, tefillah, acts of kindess, and pursuit of justice among both men and women. Nevertheless, upon reflection, it became clear to me that the various rabbis weighing in on these issues are talking past one another. They are failing to directly address the underlying difficulty that lies beneath this entire  controversy and, in reality, comes between them. Without a head-on confrontation with this problem, their debates will never yield any fruitful conclusion.

Rabbi Davidovich astutely observes that there is much more at stake here than some particular halakhic ruling or another. Focusing on the halakhic issues is missing the forest for the trees. Despite the title and ostensible goal of his post, however, I don't think Rabbi Davidovich really succeeds in "refocusing the discussion". After all, what is the real substance of the dispute over women's status in Orthodoxy, what is the basis of this war raging between representatives of the Left, Right and Center of our movement?

I would argue that what we are in fact witnessing is another incarnation of the classic Torah-Science conflict. The Torah and Talmud present a vision of men and women, their relationships, societal roles, intellectual and emotional makeup, etc., that seemingly clashes with much of what modern civilization perceives, believes and teaches about these matters. There is a contradiction between what we know or have been taught by our tradition and what we see or experience with our senses. And as with any such Torah-Science conundrum, three rational responses are available to us.

One is to uphold the traditional viewpoint unquestioningly and to dismiss whatever external evidence appears to contradict it. The difficulty with this approach is well known: While it resolves the problem for all practical and theological purposes, it leaves us somewhat intellectually dissatisfied.

Granted, the Torah gives us an eternal, sacrosanct and absolute set of principles through which to understand males and females and their respective places in the world. And certainly, just as we can accept a straightforward reading of the Biblical Creation story on faith and remain skeptical of modern science, so too can we take refuge in our Divinely revealed tradition and derive much comfort, confidence and solace from it.

But how do we explain the odd fact that women today are scientists, doctors, lawyers, judges, etc.? How do we account for the reality that modern women seem more capable, intellectually sophisticated and emotionally independent than the Torah and Talmud would suggest? I don't know the answer to these questions, but I think it would be highly instructive were proponents of the  traditionalist approach like Rabbi Davidovich to provide some tentative responses to them.

The second option for dealing with this "Torah and Science" conflict, taken up by Rabbi Broyde and to a greater or lesser extent by many Left-of-Center Modern Orthodox rabbis,  is to find refuge not in the absolute theological teachings of the Torah but in the more flexible and neutral realm of halakha.

By working out compromise solutions that are halakhically defensible and socially acceptable, we can avoid confronting the deeper ideological problem that actually faces us. Rather than take sides on the question of the nature of women and their differences from men - specifically, rather than openly endorse the traditional or the modern view - we can cobble together practical strategies and public policies that foster compromise, quiet the protests and relieve us of the responsibility to tackle the weightier and more controversial matters at hand.

The third response available when we discover a conflict between Torah and Science or between theory and empirical data is to downplay or dismiss the former in favor of the latter. Some variation of this stance, which is highly troubling to those in the traditionalist camp, seems to be the one adopted by many of the advocates of Open Orthodoxy.

 While they do not reject the truth of the Torah or the authority of the Talmud, many proponents of Open Orthodoxy may question whether the teachings of the Talmud on scientific subjects, including the nature, emotional makeup, intellectual proclivities and societal role of women, carry the binding force of law, or whether, instead, they can be understood as reflecting the scientific and cultural views that were widely held at that point in history. As Rabbi Davidovich points out, their manner of framing the issues goes beyond quibbling about details of halakha - it represents a fundamental ideological parting-of-ways with much of Mainstream Orthodox thought on these matters.

Open Orthodox Rabbis see a world filled with female scientists, judges, world leaders, philosophers, etc., and reach the conclusion that we live in a different world than the ancients did. Just as they have set aside medicinal, astronomical and biological teachings of the Talmudic Sages in deference to today's scientific findings, so too have they set aside or at least augmented the beliefs about women that were current in Talmudic times and adopted more modern, egalitarian and liberal perspectives. They argue, in the spirit of the Gaonim, Maimonides and many others, that we are not obligated to accept the scientific and sociological statements recorded in the Talmud, just as we are not obligated to embrace the literal truth of its many Aggadic and homiletic passages.

There is a fourth option, of course, which would be to find some cogent, persuasive and theologically acceptable middle ground between these views, a way to integrate the truths of tradition with the facts on the ground. This might proceed along the same lines that some thinkers have proposed to reconcile the Torah's account of Genesis with modern cosmology and physics - not by choosing one over the other, not by declaring one version right the other wrong, but by creatively reinterpreting the two as somehow complementary, understanding them as two sides of the same coin.

As I said, I don't have a definite answer to the questions I have raised here. The objective of this post was not to settle any disputes as much as it was to reframe the discussion as yet another instance of the classic Torah-Science conflict.

Not all cases of apparent dissonance between traditional belief and empirical science need to be resolved in precisely the same way. Each genuine or apparent difficulty must be evaluated on its own merits before a conclusion is reached.

 However, in order for meaningful discussion to be had, and in order for our global conversation to move forward, we must address the philosophical or ideological issue of the nature and role of women in Judaism as if it were a real or apparent contradiction between Torah and science.

Our responses, whenever and however we formulate them, should confront this fundamental source of tension dead-on and should include a clear explanation of how we interpret it and propose to resolve it.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Why Women's Ritual Participation is Not The Answer

One of the signature features of Orthodoxy is the assignment of different public roles to men and women, and the reservation of specific ritual duties to males and females, respectively. In the past, I have been invited to a number of discussion forums that dealt with the idea of empowering Jewish women by expanding the scope of their ritual participation in the home and the synagogue. Apparently, those familiar with my stance as an outspoken advocate for women's Torah Study expected me to support this initiative as well.

 However, much to their chagrin, I was and I am strongly opposed to this approach. I do not believe it offers an authentic and satisfactory response to the concerns raised by Modern Orthodox women. In fact, I believe that this tactic is poorly conceived and fundamentally misguided.

This is why I was interested to see the arguments put forth in  this article from Open Orthodox Rabbi Zev Farber in which he vigorously promotes expanding the range of ritual participation available to Modern Orthodox women. His suggestion is that we go back to basics, reexamining each and every area in which distinctions have been made between men and women and questioning whether these distinctions have a legitimate halakhic basis or are simply customs by default, "the way it's always been done". On the surface, such a reconsideration of common practice in the light of traditional sources sounds reasonable and healthy. Certainly no harm can come from the advancement of knowledge and understanding.

Rabbi Farber's article also makes some outstanding points about the double-standard that is applied to the motives of men and of women vis a vis ritual participation. There is a tendency in the Orthodox world to criticize women who express interest in ritual activity. The movement to establish women's prayer groups, Torah readings, etc., is attributed to their ignoble desire for fame, honor, or power. Yet the men, who are subject to these same petty desires and impulses, who enjoy receiving honors and basking in the limelight just as much, are granted the opportunity to participate in these rituals as a matter of course, without having their agendas scrutinized or their motives questioned. These are very fair and accurate observations.

However, while I sympathize with his sentiments and accept the cogency of much of his reasoning, I strongly disagree with Rabbi Farber's conclusions. In my opinion, the solution is not to encourage MORE ritual participation among women. On the contrary, the objective should be to educate our communities to an understanding that ritual participation is not the sin qua none of Divine Service.

 Participation brings with it the thrill of performance in front of a group, the widely coveted opportunity to shine. However, in essence, it is not outward ritual that perfects us. It is not reading the Torah publicly, nor leading the prayers before the congregation, nor reciting Qaddish that draws us nearer to Hashem and actualizes our spiritual, intellectual or moral potential.

This objective, the ultimate objective of all of Torah and mitzvot, is realized only through authentic study of Torah and pure and sincere observance of mitzvot, particularly the mitzvot of Tefillah (genuine prayer) and the pursuit of justice, charity and kindness. The greatest Sages and Prophets of our history did not scale the heights of Divine Knowledge by virtue of serving as the cantors, rabbis or Torah readers in their synagogues; they were, by and large, loners and mavericks who pursued the truth relentlessly and independently, neither seeking public recognition nor caving to public pressure. This message is a message that both men and women need to hear. It is a principle that must regain its central footing in our religious consciousness and experience.

Were an archaic version of Rabbi Farber to have lived in the days of the prophets Hosea, Isaiah, or Jeremiah, we can envision the scene: He would have climbed the rooftops or the hilltops (there were no blogs back then) and proclaimed his dream of egalitarian ritual participation in the Bet Hamiqdash, the Holy Temple. He would have encouraged religious leaders to welcome women who wished to bring sacrifices to the Temple and to lean on them before they were offered (the Talmud in Rosh Hashana and Hagigah deals with the parameters of this halakhic subject). He would probably have worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the halakhic principle that a non-Kohen can perform sacrificial slaughter, and sought to create opportunities for women to do so. He would have struggled mightily to involve women in the Temple Service to the full extent that Jewish Law allowed.

And yet, after all this work, he would be headed in the wrong direction, and he would be leading others down a literally God-forsaken path. "What need have I of your abundant sacrifices, the Word of Hashem," Isaiah proclaimed. Jeremiah preached, "But I spoke not unto your forefathers...Regarding burnt offering or sacrifice. But this thing I commanded them: Do My bidding, that I may be your God and you may be My people; walk only in the way I instruct you..."

Hosea may have said it best, when he declared, "For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice; knowledge of God, and not burnt offerings."

The sacrifices of yesteryear (may they speedily return with the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, God willing) are analogous to the public rituals of today. Our goal should not be the offering of more sacrifices, so to speak. Nor should we be clamoring to involve more people in officiating at our "sacrificial services". Instead, we should be promoting, encouraging and championing the life-changing and self-transformative study of Torah among both men and women of all ages.

It is only first and foremost through the deep and passionate study of Torah and then - in light of that Torah knowledge - through sincere and authentic prayer, acts of kindness and compassion, and the ceaseless pursuit of justice and charity that our people will find its way back to Hashem once and for all.

 Emphasis on expanding women's roles in ritual performance will contribute more to the problem than to the solution. It reinforces an ancient, deeply entrenched and distorted view of Torah and further misdirects the focus of our religious life toward the outward signs, rather than the substance, of true knowledge of God and Divine service. To borrow a poignant phrase from the Rambam, this kind of initiative "leads neither to the fear of Hashem nor to the love of Him."

Thursday, October 11, 2012

International Day of The Girl

Today has been designated by the United Nations as the first annual "International Day of the Girl" in recognition of the fact that "in many countries girls get left behind in all areas of life from school to work and many are prevented from fulfilling their true potential by severe discrimination and prejudice."

Invest in a girl and she will change the world!  - PlanUSA "Because I am a Girl" Campaign

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Random Thoughts on Hoshana Rabba

There is a widely accepted tradition that the judgment determined on Yom Kippur is finalized, once and for all, on Hoshanna Rabba, the last day of the Festival of Sukkot. The liturgy and melodies of Hoshana Rabba reflect this idea by imitating or borrowing from those of the High Holidays. Yet, when we examine the Torah and Talmud, we find no indication that Hoshana Rabba is singled out for any special treatment or has any distinct status. What is the basis for attaching such tremendous significance to the last day of Sukkot?

While it is true that there is no clear reference to Hoshana Rabba as a day of judgment in the Torah, we can identify a hint in the text that leads us to the answer. In Parashat Pinhas, the sacrificial order for every holiday is presented. On Rosh Hodesh, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot we are commanded to offer a combination of sacrifices unique to those days.

It is easy to gloss over the details in Parashat Pinhas, particularly when it comes to the exact number of bulls, rams and sheep offered on a specific day of the year. However, the diligent student is struck by one fascinating pattern. Three days of the year have an identical "menu" of offerings, and all three fall in the Hebrew month of Tishre. Those days are Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Shemini Atseret! In a subtle way, the Torah is suggesting that Shemini Atseret is linked to the High Holidays, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It is not simply a postscript to Sukkot; it is a return, as it were, to the themes of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. How does this work?

As I have explained in the past, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot represent a spiritual progression of sorts. Rosh Hashana sounds an alarm, encouraging us to liberate ourselves from unthinking habit and to reflect on the ultimate reality of God's Kingship. Yom Kippur is the natural reaction to that awareness - a rushing to the opposite extreme,  escaping from the material and mundane and immersing ourselves in exclusive focus on Hashem and His transcendence. Sukkot attempts to strike a healthy and joyous balance between the two - we engage with the physical, we enjoy and even embrace the natural and the beautiful, but we devote it to a transcendent purpose. In other words, we relate to the physical not as a distraction from or contradiction to the truth but as a vehicle that, when understood and used properly, can enable us to reach ever greater heights of intellectual and moral development.

We can see, then, why Sukkot cannot possibly be an end in itself. After our experience of reconciliation and reconnection with Hashem on Yom Kippur, we are not quite ready to dive back into ordinary life - we still need the Sukkah, the Lulav and the Etrog as safety nets that keep us connected to transcendence while we tentatively reengage with the natural world. Like a patient released from drug rehab, immediately returning to our old dysfunctional environment would be a recipe for disaster. Instead, we gradually move back to the material and the sensual, with the Sukkah and Four Species as our "lifeline" along the way. Eventually, however, the umbilical cord must be cut - we need to stand up and face life on our own, without the elaborate support system put in place on Sukkot.

Shemini Atseret, then, is the moment of truth. Bereft of the Sukkah, on our own, in our familiar, temptation-filled environment, we are now in a position to really gauge how much of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur has become a part of who we are...How much of its inspiration, insight and call to repentance have we genuinely internalized? Have the holidays changed us, or has the apparent "new beginning" been nothing other than an artificial effect created by the continued presence of so many mitzvot, so many reminders, so much structure that has kept our connection with the truths of Yom Kippur alive?

Precisely because Shemini Atseret is a throwback to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, its sacrificial order is radically different than that of the other days of Sukkot, repeating, instead, the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur Temple Service. Sukkot was a necessary bridge from the High Holidays, with all of their grandeur and transcendence, and the less-inspiring, more murky existence we struggle with the rest of the year. But once we've crossed the bridge, we are faced with a test - have the effects of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur rubbed off on us as PEOPLE? Do we still have a deeper, more robust relationship with Hashem and His Torah, something worth celebrating even WITHOUT the fanfare of Sukkah and Lulav?

And this is why, I believe, Hoshana Rabba is so significant. It is the last opportunity we have to ensure that our observance of Sukkot has reached its objective and has helped us internalize the lessons of the Holidays of Tishre. We call out "Ana Hashem", help us, Hashem! Help us to remain true to the ideals that began inspiring us during Selihot and have stayed with us until now. Help us even as we are taking leave of the Lulav and Etrog and we are bidding farewell to the Sukkah. Give us the inner strength and courage to survive the intellectual and moral challenges we will face this year, and to continue on the course we charted for ourselves during the High Holidays even when Your presence is more distant from our consciousness than it is right now. Don't allow us to be overwhelmed by our impulses, our emotions or by the endless pressures and demands of everyday life and to abandon what we have worked so hard this month to achieve!

One last observation, that really deserves its own essay: One of the most prominent themes of the Hoshanot, including those of Hoshana Rabba, is our yearning for the Messianic redemption.We invoke a rare and unusual name of Hashem, "Ani Vahu", which according to the Rambam, is a reference to the verse in Haazinu "Ani Ani Hu" - I, I am He - the declaration Hashem will make to the nations of the world when He ends our exile, once and for all. What is the reason for this Messianic fervor?

I believe the answer is that our existence in a perpetual state of exile is, in and of itself, the true measure of our progress (or lack thereof) as the Chosen People. We pray, therefore, that the strides we have made this month will serve as the first steps toward our ultimate goal - the redemption of the Jewish people and, by extension, the redemption of all of humanity.

Yes, we've hopefully progressed, we've implemented changes and committed to new resolutions. And in the meantime, we have prayed for the gift of time - another year of life during which to grow in our knowledge and observance of Torah.But our repentance has a grander and more revolutionary objective, one that reaches far beyond the realm of personal development or self-improvement: namely, the fulfillment of our role as a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation, sanctifying G-d's name in the world and inspiring all of mankind to join us in our quest for knowledge of the Creator and to partner with us in our struggle to establish justice, peace and harmony on Earth. For this reason, even after all of our prayers and supplications, even after all of our introspection and self-correction, we still must cry out to Hashem with Hoshanot, yearning for His help to transform our individual processes of repentance into a national, collective process of reawakening, rejuvenation and redemption.

I would love to compose another note explaining what I think is the significance of beating the Aravot on the ground on Hoshana Rabba. Hopefully I'll have the time and the inclination to do so after the Holiday. Ana Hashem Hoshia Na!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Sarah and Hanna: Women, Children and Repentance

This is the audio of the talk I gave last night. Essentially, it is a discussion of the stories of Sarah and Hanna (the Torah and Haftara readings for Rosh Hashana), the common themes that emerge from those narratives and their relevance to the High Holidays and our spiritual growth.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Doing The Daf

Please follow the new series of Daf Yomi (daily Talmud) lectures at Magen David Sephardic Congregation by visiting our official blog: Doing The Daf.

We are one of the only Sephardic synagogues in the world to maintain a Daf Yomi shiur and publish it online!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Eliminate Denominations - Objection #2

In last week's Washington Jewish Week, two letters were printed in response to my letter "Eliminate Denominations". Feel free to look at them here. I responded to the first of them in great detail here. In this post, I  reproduce the text of the second objection, followed by my detailed response.

A people divided

My Rockville neighbor, Rabbi Joshua Maroof, surely wrote his letter ("Eliminate denominations," Letters, WJW, July 12) about eliminating Ashkenazic denominations with several tongues in cheek. He surely knows that Jews have been a people divided - often creatively - through history by "denominations" or movements or parties.

When were we not? The biblical text tells us we were divided even under Moses. The Pharisees opposed the Sadducees, the House of Hillel and Shamai, the same, Chasidim and Mitnagdim scuffled more recently and on and on to this day. Thank God for options and alternatives enriching our lives with choices, however faulty and inadequate they all are.

And all admit to being imperfect save for the Orthodox who self-proclaim to be authentic. Besides, Reform Judaism, it should be remembered, predates Orthodox Judaism. These "denominations" representing critical differences are our profoundest strength: one people, a multiplicity of ideas and religious sensibilities.

Rabbi Maroof calls Jewish Orthodoxy unaltered. He cannot be serious. Judaism has always altered. Orthodoxy as well. That's what makes Judaism authentic and alive. But what kind of model does Orthodoxy represent - whether Ashkenazic or Sephardic - when its understanding of Judaism chains women as agunot to nasty husbands who won't do the right thing by their separated wives; manifests as a denomination that treats women as second-class Jews with no aliyot, no ordination, as acquired property in marriage, segregated from families at shul? Never mind attitudes towards non-heterosexuals.

As for Israel's Rabbinate, the state ought not employ and pay salaries to any clergy except military chaplains and hospital chaplains as in the U.S. and other democratic countries. The greater the separation of state and religion, the better. Even for Israel.

My Response

Like Mr. Finkel's, Rabbi Brenner's letter is replete with misrepresentations of Jewish history and tradition. He points to divisions between Hillel and Shammai, Hassidim and Mitnagdim, Sadduccees and Pharisees, etc., as examples of “denominations” that predate our contemporary ones.

Disagreement, difference of opinion and division into schools of thought have all, indeed, characterized Jewish life since the proverbial days of old. However, it is imperative that we distinguish between the existence of schools with variant interpretations of canonical texts and law and the emergence of movements that dispute the Divine origin, truth or validity of those texts or that law. The former are part and parcel of traditional Judaism; the latter are separatists from traditional Judaism (the Sadduccees, incidentally, would fit in the latter category as well.)

Rabbi Brenner then writes, “But what kind of model does Orthodoxy represent - whether Ashkenazic or Sephardic - when its understanding of Judaism chains women as agunot to nasty husbands who won't do the right thing by their separated wives; manifests as a denomination that treats women as second-class Jews with no aliyot, no ordination, as acquired property in marriage, segregated from families at shul? Never mind attitudes towards non-heterosexuals.”
 One may feel uncomfortable with certain aspects of Torah law, but criticizing the laws does not take away from the fact that those who maintain them are, in fact, upholding the original principles of Judaism as represented in the Written and Oral traditions.

Shifting the argument to whether you find the way the Torah structures divorce, the Talmud's laws that distinguish between genders with regard to prayer roles, or the Torah's clear prohibition of homosexuality to be agreeable to your "sensibilities" evades the question of whether or not your personal philosophy represents authentic Judaism.

Feel however you wish, but do not claim that the sum total of religious practices with which you are comfortable equates to some kind of "better" Judaism. Judaism's teachings on these issues are quite well-defined, and it is the Sephardim and so-called "Orthodox" Jews who have preserved them for generations. It is Judaism you dislike, not the traditionalists who have clung to it.

A few points of factual clarification:
First, nowhere in the Torah or Talmud are specific "attitudes" toward homosexuals legislated or promoted. The Torah prohibits homosexual relations but does not view homosexuality as any different than, for example, desecrating the Sabbath. Nowhere is it written that we should treat practicing homosexuals any differently than we treat those who fail to observe the Sabbath. Put simply, there is no correlation whatsoever between forbidding an activity and promoting negative or hateful attitudes toward individuals who engage in that activity.

Second, women are not "segregated from families" in the synagogue. Men and women sit separately in traditional synagogues just as they stood separately in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The reason is to remove the distractions that inevitably attend mingling with members of the opposite sex. If anything, in non-traditional synagogues in which principles of modest dress are not observed, there is an even greater need to separate men and women so that decorum and focus on prayer can be maintained. After all, prayer is not a social event. It is a time to commune with God. It shouldn't matter who is sitting next to you. And if it does, that's why you need a divider in your synagogue.

Third, I fail to see why women not being given aliyot means that they are second class citizens. Judaism is a religion of responsibilities, obligations and service of God, not service of the self. We should not be seeking or promoting the "honor" of receiving aliyot or being ordained as rabbis.

Those who are obligated to read from the Torah according to Jewish law are the ones who receive aliyot in order to fulfill their obligation, not to demonstrate their superiority or their status as "first class" citizens. Those who are not obligated should have no need for it. 

Similarly, those obligated to teach Torah to the community and lead services according to Jewish law are the ones who need to be ordained in order to qualify them for this position. One is ordained to fulfill these duties for the congregation, not in order to become the recipient of of honor and accolades from them. Since women are not charged with these specific responsibilities (they have many others that men don't have), they should have no need for ordination.

If women feel a need for ordination, it is because they wrongly perceive the title of rabbi as a mark of distinction and privilege that is being denied to them. Instead, they should see it as a tool that allows men to fulfill certain religious obligations that women don't necessarily have. 

Fourth, nowhere in the Torah, Talmud or codes does it say that women are acquired as property in marriage. That is simply absurd. I would urge Rabbi Brenner to more carefully study the laws of marriage and divorce in the relevant rabbinic sources where he will discover that this claim is neither fair nor accurate.

Moreover, in the course of his learning he will hopefully come to understand why religious divorce proceeds according to the principles he saw fit to denigrate in his letter. There is rhyme, reason and logic to everything in Judaism, but it takes many years of serious study for one to recognize  and appreciate that fact.

"Eliminate Denominations" Objection #1

In last week's Washington Jewish Week, two letters were printed in response to my letter "Eliminate Denominations". Feel free to look at them here. I will reproduce the text of the objections here as well, followed by my detailed response to each letter.

Objection Letter #1

In his letter urging the elimination of non-Orthodox denominations ("Eliminate denominations," Letters, WJW, July 12), Rabbi Joshua Maroof contends that Orthodoxy is the "one, unaltered, authentic, traditional Judaism," the "original" version dating back 3,500 years.
This contention is not supported by the historical record. To name just a few major changes or modifications of the "original" Judaism:

• Animal sacrifice has been eliminated, replaced by prayer.

• Daughters can receive an inheritance, contrary to the sons-only stipulation in the Torah.

• The legal subterfuge known as "Prosbul" circumvents the Torah's requirement that debts be forgiven in the Sabbatical year.

• Rabbi Gershom ben Judah's edict prohibiting polygamous marriages.

• The failure to carry out (thankfully) the many death penalties mandated in the Torah.

In the area of beliefs, there is the introduction of a hereafter, a theme nowhere to be found in the Torah. We also recite, in the Amidah, our belief in the resurrection of the dead. Whence comes this notion?

One should feel free to criticize Conservative and Reform Judaism's practices and trends, but to claim that only they are departures from an "original" version is either naive or unbelievably disingenuous. The bottom line is that we are all Jews. When we have so few friends into the world, it ill-behooves us to foster alienation within our own ranks.


My Response to Mr. Finkel
Mr. Finkel's letter claims that my statement that authentic Judaism has not changed over time is not supported by the historical record. To bolster his argument, he cites a number of pieces of "evidence" that he feels disprove my point. While his letter may seem convincing on the surface, an examination of his list of "changes" in Judaism reveals many gaps in his Jewish education. I will respond briefly, point by point, to the issues he raises:

1 – Mr. Finkel states that the absence of animal sacrifice in Judaism and its “replacement” with prayer is a sign that the religion evolved. However, animal sacrifice was not "eliminated and replaced with prayer" as he claims. Animal sacrifice was only permitted in the Holy Temple, where it coexisted with prayer, as the Bible clearly states. Animal sacrifice was discontinued because the Temple was destroyed. Prayer was not "invented" to replace sacrifice, although the schedule of prayer was later modeled after the Temple service.

2 – Mr. Finkel claims that the Torah does not allow daughters to inherit but that, nowadays, daughters do inherit. The truth is that nowhere in Jewish law does it say that daughters cannot receive an inheritance if the parent stipulates this before his/her death. If the parent dies without a will, Jewish law dictates that the sons inherit. This law was never modified in any way. I am not sure where Mr. Finkel heard otherwise.

3 – Mr. Finkel argues that the Prozbul, instituted by Hillel to encourage lending by sidestepping the cancelation of loans in the Shemitta year, demonstrates that Judaism was, in fact, altered over time. It is beyond the scope of this brief response to explain the logic behind "prozbul". However, it is not effectuating a change in the law, but is working around (or through) a loophole in the law for a good purpose. There is a big difference between modifying and working within/around the system. The latter is done all the time, in all legal systems, and does not amount to changing them.

4 – Mr. Finkel points to the decree of Rabbenu Gershom, forbidding polygamy, is an example of Judaism changing with the times. However, an official decree of policy made by one rabbi which was accepted as custom by many (not all) Jewish communities is hardly a "change in Judaism". No one claims that the Torah changed. Everyone acknowledged that polygamy remained permitted, at least on a Biblical level. However, Rabbenu Gershom decided to institute a rabbinical ban on polygamy in the countries under his authority.

5 – Mr. Finkel further claims that the fact that the death penalties legislated by the Torah are not implemented suggests that Judaism has changed. Death penalties are not carried out because we don't have a Sanhedrin authorized to carry them out, not because the religion has been changed. Even when the Sanhedrin existed, the death penalty was used sparingly. But its complete absence from contemporary life is the result of a change in the external world (the lack of a Sanhedrin) not a change in the Torah.

Mr. Finkel proceeds to claim not only that Jewish practices changed, but that many Jewish beliefs were added to the religion later and did not exist in Biblical times. Specifically, he asks where the belief in the afterlife or the resurrection of the dead, widely held among traditional Jews, could possibly have come from. The concept of the afterlife, while certainly not the focus of Biblical or post-Biblical-Era Judaism, is alluded to in the Book of Psalms and in the Book of Ecclesiastes, and the resurrection of the dead is mentioned in several places, most notably the Book of Ezekiel and the Book of Daniel.

Moreover, with respect to belief in the afterlife, it is most certain that the Jews subscribed to it throughout their history, since it would be quite bizarre for any nation existing 4000 years ago to have not only denied but to have failed to address or even mention an idea that was a fundamental cornerstone of every other religion en vogue at that time, particularly the Egyptian cults. Its omission from the Torah and relegation to oral tradition is understandable when we consider that it is a topic subject to great misunderstanding and distortion when approached improperly.

Mr. Finkel concludes with these words: "The bottom line is that we are all Jews. When we have so few friends into the world, it ill-behooves us to foster alienation within our own ranks. "

My point exactly! This is why we were given one Torah and no denominations into which to group ourselves.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Tisha B'Av Letter 5772

Every year, I send a message to my congregation before Tisha B'Av. Here is the letter I composed and sent before Tisha B'Av 5772/2012.

Dear Members and Friends,

This Saturday night marks the beginning of the darkest and saddest day on the Jewish calendar, the fast of Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av commemorates a host of tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout the course of their history, including the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. In addition to being a day of solemn mourning and deep reflection, Tisha B’Av is the most serious and stringent fast day of the year, second only to Yom Kippur.

Tragically, Tisha B’Av is often neglected or overlooked by contemporary Jews. Many are unaware of its existence. Those who are familiar with Tisha B’Av may feel alienated from its message of sadness and gloom. As a result, despite the supreme importance of the day, it is not as widely acknowledged or observed in the Diaspora as it should be.

Tisha B’Av is a reminder to all of us that we live in a dark and unjust world, a world marred by profound ignorance, immorality, materialism, poverty, racism, misogyny, tyranny, and selfishness, and that it is our responsibility as the Chosen People to correct this sorry state of affairs.

The purpose of our focus on a wide array of painful and unspeakable tragedies is not to depress, debilitate or demoralize us but to awaken within us a sincere desire to avoid such calamities in the future. This means realizing that the terrible occurrences of the past were not accidental; rather, they were the inevitable and inescapable consequences of the corruption of the society in which we live.

The mourning of Tisha B’Av is designed to create a powerful sense of unity among all members of the Jewish people, both in terms of our shared historical fate and in terms of our shared national destiny, so that, together, we can strive for a genuinely better tomorrow.

We understand that the process of redeeming our broken society cannot begin until we face the stark, harsh and painful realities that surround us. We know that the joyous rebuilding of Jewish community and the achievement of the Prophetic ideals of peace on earth and universal brotherhood will be inspired and fueled by the feelings of sadness and despair we experience on Tisha B’Av.

The message of Tisha B’Av is meant to resonate and should resonate with all those who are sensitive to the plight of mankind and are truly concerned about the injustices and abuses - physical, moral and intellectual - that are perpetrated daily across the globe.

When we, as a people, cannot tolerate this state of affairs any longer; when we are finally willing to set aside all of our trivial concerns and petty disagreements for the sake of a greater good; when the lessons of Tisha B’Av finally penetrate our hearts and we are fully prepared to do whatever it takes to transform a disappointing and diseased world into the inspiring and idyllic one of which we have dreamed for centuries - then, and only then, will the light of true redemption burst forth in all its glory.

Tisha B’Av begins on Shabbat evening at 8:22PM. Please join us at Magen David Sephardic Congregation for our deeply moving services Saturday Night at 9:30PM, Sunday morning at 8:30AM and Sunday evening at 7:45PM.

At 4:30PM on Sunday, we will be screening three fascinating and educational films that highlight the experiences of Sephardic Jews in exile. I hope you will attend the screening and thereby enrich your experience of this incredibly important day.

Shabbat Shalom and Best Regards,

Rabbi Joshua Maroof

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Why the Nine Days Don't "Work"

From the first day of the Hebrew Month of Av through the Fast of the Ninth of Av (Tisha B'Av), Jews observe various mourning practices in commemoration of the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. They refrain from eating meat, drinking wine, having parties, listening to music, and a variety of other enjoyable or celebratory activities as determined by communal custom. While they have been expanded, modified and adjusted with the passage of time, the roots of these observances are thousands of years old, and the concept of mourning for the loss of the Temple is found in the Bible itself.

This leads us to the obvious question: Jews have been carefully observing the Nine Days for thousands of years. They have scrupulously avoided parties, weddings, meat, wine, etc., consulting with their rabbis to clarify what is or is not permitted during this time. They have mourned for Jerusalem in precise accordance with Jewish Law. So why hasn't God taken note of our punctilious behavior and rebuilt the Temple already?

The answer is that our observance of the Nine Days has become yet another exemplification of the underlying problem with our observance of Jewish law in general, and it is this deeply entrenched problem that was the cause of our exile to begin with. Rather than awaken us to our distorted relationship with Jewish Law, the customs of mourning have fallen victim to the same distortion.

During the era when the Temple stood (and this seems to be true not only of the Second Temple but even of the First), the Jews observed many, if not all, of the commandments of the Torah. They were concerned about the holiness of the Sabbath and the kashruth of their food. They visited the Temple on holidays and brought sacrifices as required by the Law. On a ritual level, their conduct left little to be desired.

Yet the Prophets, most notably Isaiah and Jeremiah, castigated the Jews for their failure to adhere to the Torah - not the laws of the Torah, but its spirit and purpose. The Prophets saw that the Jews were outwardly observant, but had not internalized the principles, values and ideals that observance is supposed to instill in us. They may have consulted with Rabbis to determine the precise legal ramifications of their actions, but they showed little concern for the metaphysical, spiritual and ethical implications thereof.

For instance, Isaiah famously criticizes the Jews not merely for desecrating the Sabbath through work, but for speaking about mundane pursuits on the Sabbath day and for failing to enjoy the Sabbath to the fullest. His message was that technical observance is not enough - one must consider the ultimate purpose and meaning of the observance, the objective it is designed to achieve.

This is most beautifully exemplified in my favorite passage in Jeremiah, chapter 34, which is the Haftara for Parashat Mishpatim. (Unfortunately, it is rarely read in the synagogue, because it is usually Parashat Sheqalim, so the regular Haftara is almost always replaced with another).

Tzidqiyahu, the King of Judah, attempts to return the Jews to the observance of the Torah, and gathers them in the Temple to make a solemn covenant with them. Specifically, he has the people promise to adhere to the commandment to free slaves after six years of servitude. The assembled group makes a covenant with God and commits to abide by the law. In fact, they do go ahead and release their slaves.

There is only one problem: After setting them free, the Jews immediately chase down their slaves and recapture them!

God tells Jeremiah to commend the Jews for doing what previous generations had failed to do - freeing the slaves in accordance with the Law. However, He then informs the people that their subsequent reversal not only erased their good deed, it sealed the decree of their destruction.

 The fact that they desecrated God's name, violated their solemn oath and retook their slaves was sufficient reason in God's eyes to condemn them. We must wonder - what were they thinking? Why did they go all out, commit to this vow, keep it, and then break it?

On the surface, it seems absurd, but consider this: They never violated their oath. In the minds of the Jews, they had observed their vow to the letter and had released the slaves as they were commanded. They never promised they wouldn't recapture the slaves afterward! Who said anything about not recapturing?

From the technical, legal standpoint, the Jews were totally justified in their actions. From a "halakhic" perspective, the perspective of Jewish law, they had done nothing wrong, and probably felt proud that they had acted precisely in accordance with the requirements of the Torah.

The message of the Prophet was exactly this - technical compliance with the Law is not what God wants from you. He wants devotion to the purpose of the Law and its spirit. Why did God command us to free the slaves after six years of labor? Certainly not to enact a formalistic ritual of releasing the slaves and then to recapture them!

The temporary character of servitude is a reflection of the humanity of the slave and his right to have an independent, autonomous existence in the world. Freeing the slaves demonstrates our understanding that no human being can own another human being. Every person is created in the image of God, answers only to God and is given the power of free choice by God to live his or her own life on this Earth, hopefully in the service of God.

The Jews in the story acted in what would today be considered a stereotypically "Orthodox" fashion, demonstrating a painstaking adherence to the letter of the law (think of the legalistic "selling" of hametz to a non-Jew before Passover as a contemporary instance of this approach). However, their observance of the commandment did not promote the values and ideals it was supposed to; on the contrary, it did exactly the opposite!

The "release" of slaves by the generation of Tzidqiyahu totally subverted and undermined the essential spirit of the law. Rather than serving as a genuine demonstration of the principle that man cannot permanently enslave his fellow man, the Jews transformed the "freeing of slaves" into a ritualistic legal mechanism that would permit them to hold onto their servants forever with impunity!

When observance of the Law is perverted from a vehicle of true philosophical and ethical ideas into a method of working around or even uprooting and eliminating those ideas, there is no hope for Torah Judaism anymore. The people's whole orientation to God's Law is fundamentally distorted and must be rebuilt from the ground up - hence the harsh decree of wanton destruction, famine and exile from the Land of Israel pronounced by Jeremiah in Chapter 34.

In order to really appreciate the Nine Days and Tisha B'Av, we must see the lesson of Jeremiah in ourselves...We must identify the ritualizing of our observance, not only the absence of spirit, direction and purpose in our conduct but the literal replacement of of lofty ideals and values with dry, technical, behavioristic formulas.

Jewish law and custom is eternally binding, and there is no question that we are obligated to keep all of the practices of mourning that our Prophets and Sages deemed obligatory during this time of the year. Nevertheless, as long as we are more concerned with the minutiae of the legal requirements of the Nine Days than we are with the absence of the Temple and what that means about the spiritual state of our nation, this indicates that the customs we work so hard to observe have failed to achieve their aim. In fact, it means that they have become yet another symptom of the core problem that is responsible for our lengthy dispersion across the globe.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Eliminate Denominations

This is a letter that I submitted to the Washington Jewish Week and was published in the current edition:

Dear Editor,

Chief Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar was roundly criticized for his negative statements about Conservative and Reform rabbis in a recent issue of Washington Jewish Week. ("Message to the 'wicked,' " WJW, June 28). Although he employed harsh language, I believe that Rabbi Amar's essential point was cogent and compelling. The existence of denominations in Judaism has created havoc in the Diaspora, undermining Jewish unity and complicating Jewish identity in multiple ways.

It continually strikes me as bizarre that Conservative and Reform rabbis, after unilaterally deciding to change the hallowed theological beliefs and practices of traditional Judaism, suddenly cry foul when defenders of the tradition refuse to accept the validity of their movements. After denying the truth of the Torah, disregarding the laws of Shabbat and kashrut and most recently "sanctifying" gay marriage, they consider those of us who wish to uphold our 3,500-year-old beliefs and laws to be "intolerant" and demand that their modified version of our religion be acknowledged as "Judaism" on par with the original form thereof. If they wish to institute radical changes, then they should be prepared to deal with the consequences of those changes.

I don't think the solution to the problem is for Orthodoxy to prevail over the other denominations; rather, I believe that the only answer is the elimination of denominations altogether. Many of those who attend Sephardic synagogues, like those who attend Conservative synagogues and Reform temples, drive on Shabbat and are not very observant. Yet they are passionate about Judaism, the one, unaltered, authentic, traditional Judaism with which they were raised, and they would not want to have it any other way.

Sephardic Judaism has been able to eschew denominationalism and preserve its original form without excluding or rejecting individuals whose personal observance or level of belief falls short of the mark. I would encourage Ashkenazic Jews to drop their labels and divisions and return to the faith of their ancestors as it was taught for thousands of years. This, and not the creation and validation of competing movements, is what will help us progress one step closer to our ultimate redemption as a people.


Friday, July 06, 2012

Essential Laws of The Three Weeks - Revised for 2012

                                           נחמת יעקב - קיצור הלכות בין המצרים
                               Essential Laws of The Three Weeks and Tisha B’av
                                                        by Rabbi J. Maroof

                    מוקדש לזכר נשמת חמותי היקרה יהודית בת שמואל ע“ה  ת. נ. צ. ב. ה
שבעה עשר בתמוז - The Seventeenth of Tammuz

1. Each year we observe a period of mourning for the destruction of the Temple. We begin on the Seventeenth day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz with a day of fasting and prayer. This year, the fast falls out on Sunday, July 8th, 2012.

2. The fast of the 17th of Tammuz begins at astronomical dawn and continues until nightfall. Sephardim conclude this and all other minor fasts twenty minutes after sundown, whereas Ashkenazim conclude anywhere from thirty to fifty minutes after sundown. This year, the fast will begin in Rockville on Tuesday morning at 4:39 AM and will conclude (for Sephardim) at 8:57 PM.

3. It is preferable not to launder clothing, wear freshly laundered clothing or bathe in warm water during the daytime on the Seventeenth of Tammuz. However, it is permitted to brush one’s teeth with toothpaste or use mouthwash.

4. From the Seventeenth of Tammuz through the Ninth day of the month of Av, it is customary to avoid reciting the blessing of Shehecheyanu on new fruits, clothing, etc.

5. It is the custom of Ashkenazim to avoid shaving, taking haircuts and celebrating weddings beginning with the 17th day of Tammuz. If necessary for business purposes, shaving is permitted until the first day of Av. In particularly dire circumstances, it may be permitted up through the Friday before Tisha B’av. In such cases, a competent Rabbi should be consulted. 

6. It is meritorious to avoid listening to most forms of music (with the exception of classical and some religious music) throughout the year as a sign of mourning for the destruction of the Temple. However, if one is lenient in this regard most of the time, one should try to be more careful about it during this period.

תשעת הימים ושבוע שחל בו - The Nine Days

1. The first nine days of the month of Av are known as the “Nine Days”, a period of time during which our mourning for the Temple’s destruction intensifies. Beginning with the first day of Av, Sephardim join Ashkenazim in not permitting any celebrations, such as weddings or engagement parties, until the conclusion of the mourning period. Some Ashkenazim also forbid cutting fingernails and toenails during this time.

2. It is customary to refrain from eating meat and drinking wine during the Nine Days. Sephardim do not start observing this restriction until the second day of Av (i.e., the night after Rosh Hodesh Av.) Ashkenazim abstain from meat and wine on Rosh Hodesh as well. This year, Rosh Hodesh Av falls out on Friday, July 20th.

3. Ashkenazic custom prohibits drinking wine during the Nine Days even for a mitzvah, such as reciting Havdala or Birkat Hamazon. Sephardim only apply the prohibition to drinking that is done for personal enjoyment. All agree that the restriction on meat and wine is not observed on Shabbat.
4. The Saturday night prior to Tisha B’av marks the beginning of a time period known as the “Week of Tisha B’av”. At this point, the mourning observances are further intensified and remain this way until the conclusion of the fast.

5. Throughout the Week of Tisha B’av,  it is prohibited to shave or take a haircut.  (As mentioned above, Ashkenazic custom is to avoid shaving, haircuts and cutting fingernails for the entire “Three Weeks” period.)

 6. One may not launder clothing (even for someone else) or wear freshly laundered clothing during the Week of Tisha B’av. This restriction extends to linens, towels, etc. During this period, a non-Jew may not be asked to launder clothing on a Jew’s behalf.

7. One is not permitted to bathe with hot water (i.e., for enjoyment) during the Week of Tisha B’av. Rinsing off with cold water or to remove actual dirt is permitted.

8. One may not produce or purchase new garments during this time period, even if one does not plan on using them until after Tisha B’av.   

9. The custom of Ashkenazim is to extend the “Week of Tisha B’av” and observe its restrictions - not laundering, wearing fresh clothing, bathing for pleasure, or making/buying new garments - for the entire “Nine Days” period.

10. This year, since Tisha B’av falls out on Sunday, Sephardim only observe the “Week of Tisha B’av” restrictions on Tisha B’av itself. However, the restrictions of the “Nine Days” - not eating meat, drinking wine, engaging in celebration, etc. - are observed as usual.

ערב תשעה באב - The Eve of the Ninth of Av

1. On the eve of Tisha B’av after midday, it is preferable only to study Torah subjects that are permitted on fast itself. However, if one cannot focus his or her mind on such topics and will end up neglecting Torah study altogether, it is better to be lenient and study the topic of one’s choice.

2. After the Mincha service on the eve of the Tisha B’av, a special meal known as the Seuda Hamafseket is held in preparation for the fast. This year, however, since Tisha B’av begins on Saturday night, the laws regarding Seuda Hamafseket are not observed. Seudah Shelisheet is eaten in the normal manner but must be concluded before sunset.

תשעה באב - Tisha B’av

1. All Jews are obligated to fast on Tisha B’av, even pregnant and nursing women. A woman who has recently (within thirty days) given birth to a child is exempt from the fast. If a person becomes ill from fasting on Tisha B’av,  he need not complete the fast. This year, since the 9th of Av falls on Shabbat and its observance is postponed to Sunday, Sephardim exempt pregnant and nursing women from the fast. 

2. This year, Tisha B’av begins on Saturday, July 28th at sundown and ends at nightfall on Sunday, July 29th. As mentioned above, depending on one’s custom, one may conclude the fast anytime from 20-50 minutes after sundown on Sunday.

3. Five pleasurable activities are prohibited on the Ninth of Av:

        (1) Eating and drinking
        (2) Anointing one’ body with oil or perfume
        (3) Washing, including brushing teeth and using mouthwash
        (4) Wearing leather shoes, and
        (5) Marital relations, including physical contact with/sleeping in the same bed as one's spouse

4. On Tisha B’av, one may only study subjects that are directly related to the destruction of the Temple or to Divine punishment, such as the Book of Eicha, the Book of Iyov, the sections of the Prophetic books and the Talmud that deal with the destruction of the Temple, or the laws of mourning.

5. One is not permitted to inquire about the well being of others on Tisha B’av. This would include greeting friends, asking them how they are doing and otherwise engaging in “small talk” about personal concerns. Answering the phone with “hello” is not considered greeting and is permitted.

6. One is prohibited to work on the night of Tisha B’av. During the day, work is permitted after the recitation of Kinnot. According to some authorities, one must wait until midday before becoming involved in any work. In any case,  working at any time on Tisha B’av is strongly discouraged and, if possible, work should be completely avoided during the fast.

7. During the recitation of Kinnot in the synagogue, it is customary to sit on the ground or on a low stool or pillow. Many people refrain from sitting on a regular chair on Tisha B’av from sundown until midday, even in their own homes.

8. Since leather shoes are not worn on Tisha B’av, the blessing of “She-asa Li Kol Tzorki” should be omitted at Shacharit.

9. One may wash one’s hands in the morning with a blessing, but the water may only be poured over the fingertips (up to the first joint of the fingers). This form of washing is also permitted - and, if one plans to pray, recite a blessing, or study Torah, it is required - after one has used the bathroom. One who has actually become dirty may wash the dirt off normally.

10. The custom of the majority of Jews is not to wear a Tallit or Tefillin during Shacharit on Tisha B’av. They are worn at Mincha instead. (However, the custom of some Sephardim in Israel is to wear the Tallit and Tefillin at Shacharit as usual.)

עשרה באב - The Tenth of Av

1. This year, since Tisha B’av begins on Saturday night, we do not recite Havdalah in the normal manner after Shabbat. Instead, the blessing on fire is recited in the synagogue during evening services, and the remainder of havdala is postponed until Sunday night. It is recited on Sunday night when the fast ends, without spices (besamim) or a candle. It is customary to recite Birkat Ha-Levana on the night following Tisha B’av.

2. One may not eat meat or drink wine the night after the fast. This year, since the 9th of Av is Shabbat and the fast is observed on the 10th of Av, everyone agrees that one can eat meat and drink wine beginning Monday morning, July 30th.

3. Upon the conclusion of the fast, Sephardim are permitted to launder clothing, shave, take haircuts, and bathe (even with hot water). Ashkenazim generally refrain from these activities until midday of the tenth of Av. This year, since the 9th of Av was Shabbat and the fast was “delayed” until Sunday, even Ashkenazim are lenient and permit all of these activities immediately after the fast.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The New Koren Edition of the Talmud Bavli

I was very excited to receive my copy of the new English Koren Edition of the Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Berakhot, with commentary by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz. The Jewish world has been enriched by Rabbi Steinsaltz's prodigious contributions to Torah scholarship in Hebrew, English, Russian and French for decades now. The release of the Koren Edition of the Talmud Bavli is another well-deserved feather in his cap.

Twenty years ago, young English-speaking students like myself had few options as far as translations of the Talmud were concerned. Most of us relied upon the Soncino Edition which, although scholarly and precise, still demanded a great deal from its readership.

The benefit of Soncino was the fact that it was complete (there was a Soncino volume for every Tractate) and that leafing through its austere English rendition of the text combined with its sparse footnotes was easier than the alternative - looking up every word in an even more foreboding dictionary and then trying to fit the words together into complete sentences and make sense out of them.

Sadly, the Soncino Edition has become so unpopular that it is now available online, for free, in its entirety. It was only in more recent years that I came to appreciate the positive in Soncino and to understand that the fact that it did not spoonfeed us the Gemara was a good thing.

Providing students with only a bare-bones translation and minimal footnotes didn't free them from the obligation to think and to struggle with the text as they should. It helped them but didn't fulfill the mitzvah of Talmud Torah (study of Torah) for them. Moreover, in adulthood I realized the scholarly depth of many of the prefaces and introductions included in the Soncino Edition volumes which I, as a youngster, had skipped over as a matter of course.

Then there was the Steinsaltz Talmud. Without a doubt, the Hebrew edition was fantastic, displaying the presence and structure of different sugyot/topics on a given page by inserting a space after each self-contained unit and numbering the subsections that emerged (a one-sided page usually extended to two pages as a result), providing a nicely vowelized text and a simple running commentary in Modern Hebrew, and including important biographical, historical and halakhic notes.

Despite the inevitable controversy that attends any new project, the Steinsaltz Talmud was rightly embraced as an outstanding resource by many Torah scholars. My Rosh Yeshiva from High School (later my chevruta and lifelong mentor) had a special affinity for his Steinsaltz "Shas" (though it was not complete in those days) and used it whenever possible.

I believe that this was, in part, because of my Rosh Yeshiva's love of the straightforward and elegant Modern Hebrew translation that is, first and foremost, the defining contribution of Rabbi Steinsaltz. (At some point, one volume of Jerusalem Talmud - Masekhet Peah - appeared in the Steinsaltz Hebrew Edition, and I still have a copy which is now out-of-print; apparently, that project was discontinued, much to my chagrin.)

When the Steinsaltz Talmud began appearing in English, matters were a bit more complicated. First, each volume contained only a single chapter of the tractate, which meant that, in some cases, you would have needed dozens of volumes to complete one tractate. They were beautifully bound hardcover books with thick and durable paper that was easy on the eyes.

Inside, the layout was not confusing but may have been too ambitious. It included two translations: A running, contextualized, coherent translation on one side of the page and a literal translation of the words on the other side. I assume that the latter was designed to help students in the process of learning Hebrew and Aramaic for themselves.

Several volumes of the English Steinsaltz Talmud appeared and seemed to be attracting buyers. (Here is a review from that time.) After all, the only competition was the old Soncino, and Steinsaltz offered a user-friendliness that far surpassed its predecessor. But then a development of epic proportions took place and shook the Jewish world to its very foundations...I refer, of course, to the advent of the now ubiquitous Artscroll Schottenstein Edition of the Talmud.

We students couldn't help but adore the Artscroll. Available, at first, on only a handful of Tractates, the Artscroll allowed you to sit back and read the Talmud like a book. Every word, sentence, step in the argument, inference or conclusion was spelled out so simply and clearly that any layperson could grasp it.

Artscroll was to Talmud what No Fear Shakespeare is to Hamlet - it was more than a translation, it transformed a formerly abstruse and intimidating work into a pleasant, attractive and popular bestseller. Never would the world of Talmud study be the same. Never again would the sense of awe at the inaccessibility of the Gemara or the impenetrable depth of its sugyot grip a student quite the way it once had.

And as the number of Tractates of Artscroll's Schottenstein Edition increased, so did participation in Daf Yomi shiurim across the globe. Now anyone - literally, anyone - could follow the flow of the Gemara on their own, without getting lost or falling behind. No need for additional commentaries, for debates in the Bet Midrash or to ask your rebbe - it was all there, if not in the body of the text, then in the breathtakingly copious and comprehensive footnotes. Moreover, the volumes were sleek, the style predictable and "standardized", the typeface crisp and the language clear and direct. Each volume contained several chapters if not an entire Tractate. Who could ask for anything more?

As a result of the ascendancy of the Artscroll, Steinsaltz's English edition faded into the background and eventually into oblivion. This was unfortunate. The Steinsaltz had much to offer that the Artscroll did not provide, particularly insofar as the historical, cultural, botanical, scientific and halakhic context of the Talmudic sugyot are concerned. Nevertheless, it fell by the wayside for four reasons:

1) One rabbi, no matter how gifted, simply could not compete with the formidable team of scholars employed by Artscroll and they overtook the market by storm, publishing tractate after tractate at a relatively rapid pace and becoming the "address" for those in need of a translation.

2) Because the Steinsaltz Editions were prohibitively expensive at the time, costing the same as an Artscroll Talmud but covering much less material per volume than the Artscroll did. There is also the ease of use factor - carrying around one book that includes all or half of a tractate is more practical than one book per chapter.

3) While the footnotes in the Artscroll are often criticized for being excessive, they provided more sources, references, etc., than Steinsaltz, making their treatment of the Talmud more comprehensive and more attractive to the student interested in further research (or in showing off, as the case may be).

4) Rabbi Steinsaltz received criticism and was branded as controversial in some segments of the Yeshiva world. By contrast, Artscroll was in full possession of its Charedi/Yeshivish bona fides and was therefore more readily embraced by right-wing of Orthodoxy, which is home to a significant majority of students of the Talmud today.

 I believe that Koren Publishers has done a tremendous service for the English-speaking public by presenting the valuable insights and perspectives of Rabbi Steinsaltz in a new and more accessible format that addresses many of these problems. Let me briefly review the Koren Edition of Masekhet Berakhot, starting with the positives:

1) The volume is extremely attractive. It is a well-bound hardcover book with thick, off-white paper, a reader-friendly typeface with just enough lines and boldface sections, and lovely illustrations/photographs (many in color).

2) All of Masekhet Berakhot is contained in one volume rather than the two volumes in Artscroll's Schottenstein Edition.

3) The layout is crisp and clear and the historical insights, background notes, etc., are nicely organized around the margins of the page.

4) An all-Hebrew version of the Tractate, with vowelized text and Rashi, Tosafot, etc., appears in the back of the volume.

5) The format of the translation is clear and elegant. Rather than intersperse Hebrew and English within the same paragraph, the Koren Edition has the Hebrew phrase appear to the left next to an English paragraph that translates and elucidates it. This makes it easier to move back and forth between the two languages without leaving the page.

6) Excellent introductions that provide background and context relevant to the tractate as well as the individual chapters. Helpful post-chapter summaries in the signature Steinsaltz form are also included.

I am proud to add the Koren Edition of the Talmud Bavli to my library. But here are some negatives about the edition that I feel I should point out as well:

1) The layout of the page strikes the reader as a bit busy. Granted, making the type any larger and/or leaving wider spaces between sections would have made the volume unwieldy. But to the casual eye, there is a lot of material in the midsection of the page and it can be difficult to find your bearings as a result.

2) The notes are wonderful, but oftentimes lack references or sources. When quoting halakhic conclusions the citation is usually complete, but when mentioning alternative interpretations and/or background material the exact location of the source is usually omitted. This is a drawback of Rabbi Steinsaltz's classic Hebrew version as well. It could have been corrected in the new edition, but was not.

3) Including the vowelized text of the Talmud in the back of the volume for one who wishes to see the text "inside" without English notes or translation is a great idea, but the typeface used for the Hebrew in the appendix is not as crisp or attractive as some other options might have been.

4) One of the most wonderful aspects of the Steinsaltz Hebrew Edition is the way in which the multiple units/sugyot on a given Talmudic page are presented. As mentioned above, the Hebrew Edition utilizes paragraph spacing to subdivide the text into easily discernible sections, providing a bird's eye view of the structure of the discussion or discussions underway. In my opinion, this is one of the key benefits of the Steinsaltz Edition. This outstanding feature has not been replicated in the Koren Edition of the Talmud Bavli, which is a shame.

One cannot deny the appeal and the value of this new addition to the collective library of the English-speaking Jewish community. The amount of thought and consideration invested not only in the content but in the aesthetic features of the volume is truly impressive.

While it is doubtful whether the Koren Edition will be able to supplant the dominant Artscroll/Schottenstein Edition in the Yeshiva world anytime soon, it will certainly be a viable option for many new students of the Talmud who seek a starting point for serious learning. Those already accustomed to the Artscroll/Schottenstein style will nonetheless find it to be a wonderful complementary resource and reference tool. Veteran students of the Talmud who don't require a translation will still be captivated by the wealth of information Rabbi Steinsaltz has culled from multiple disciplines to enhance and enrich appreciation of the text.

The Koren Edition of the Talmud Bavli is a handsome volume that offers an accessible English translation, informative notes, and a focused commentary that achieves accuracy and clarity without sacrificing brevity. It is a work in which religious authenticity and faith have been perfectly balanced and blended with philological, archaeological, historical and biographical scholarship - a testament to both the spiritual vision and the brilliance of Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz.