Monthly Archives: December 2012

Meḥitza: Do Orthodox prayers count in a Conservative Synagogue?

Before I accepted my present job, I was asked many times by my interviewers how I would deal and interact with other Jewish denominations. In other words, would my Orthodoxy impinge upon my ability to adequately execute my job? Without fail, I would respond that I plan on treating all Jews equally. However, I was quick to point out that I personally do endorse certain beliefs, and while I would sit in on a Reform or Conservative prayer services, I would not take part in their Tefillot (any aspects of the prayer service that qualify as halakhic prayer). To be honest, I really had not put much thought into that position. I’m sure some rabbi once told it to me, and I heard that is what Richard Joel – the current President of Yeshiva University – did when he headed Hillel International. Really, I just assumed it was the Orthodox perspective (even though, obviously, some Orthodox individuals would never even enter a Reform or Conservative House of Prayer, let alone during prayers).

The truth is that there are certain issues that, if present, invalidate the possibility of a halkhicly valid prayer taking place. R. Yosef Karo in his law book, the Shulḥan Aruch, lists them, including urine, bugs, putrid smells, etc. Additionally, I was taught that the lack of a meḥitza (halakhic wall separating the sexes), position of the bimah (Torah dais), musical instrument accompaniment, employment of microphones, women taking certain roles of prominence, female choirs, etc., possibly also fall into this category. In the following analysis, I would like to focus on just one of these: meḥitzah. While this topic has been written about as if it is the holy grail of prayer by many, I believe a new look at it would prove to be beneficial.

There’s an old anecdote that I think I made part of it up. It’s a dialogue between a Conservative and an Orthodox Jew; it goes as follows:
Conservative Jew: Why doesn’t Rav Yosef Karo’s law book, the Shulḥan Aruch, have a section for the laws of meḥitza?
Orthodox Jew: Why?
Conservative Jew: We learn from this that a synagogue really doesn’t need a meḥitza.
Orthodox Jew: No, we learn from this that a synagogue really doesn’t need women. (1)

It’s true: there are no laws of meḥitza in the primary law book of the Jews. Similarly, it is true: women have no obligation to pray in a synagogue or with a quorum.

The primary source cited for the laws of meḥitza is a verse from Zachariah (12:12); it reads: “The land will mourn, each family by itself…” The Talmud (Sukkah 52a) explains that this verse refers to the Messianic era: even though the world’s populace will be freed of the evil inclination, nonethless, men and women will still congregate into distinct groups to mourn separately. Apparently, there is a need to separate women and men, even at a funeral, even when the evil inclination enjoys no hold upon mankind. Indeed, this understanding of the verse was so firmly established, the Talmud explains, the Temple officials of the Second Commonwealth augmented the Temple’s structure based on it. They erected a balcony in the Temple’s Courtyard in order to thwart any fraternizing between the sexes. While any additions to the Temple are forbidden, as the precise structural dimensions of the Temple were prescribed in detail in the Bible (2), when the option of reorganizing traffic failed, the verse from Zachariah proffered the necessary justification, through an a fortiori argument, to overrule the Divine schemata and construct a balcony.
In other words, originally in the Temple, there was no balcony. Men and women walked wherever they wanted in the Temple’s Ezrat Nashim (Women’s Courtyard). When fraternizing at Temple functions became a problem, first the Temple staff reorganized traffic, and then when that proved ineffective, they decided to build a balcony in the Temple to separate the sexes. This Talmudic text is the sole source for the possibility of building meḥitza in synagogues today in order to allow both genders to pray in one space. But can this case alone justify what Orthodox synagogues presently do? Let’s try to understand the connection between this balcony and our modern meḥitzot.

  1. The Temple was not the Ancient equivalent of our modern synagogues. Even though the Temple was a place of prayer, the predominant method of worshipping God in the Temple was via animal offerings. Additionally, it was a place for Jews to congregate. For example, on Sukkot, the Simḥat Beit Ha-Sho’eiva (a religious type of party) was celebrated there. The Talmud identifies this party as the impetus for building the balcony. But if this is the case, it is easier to justify the need for separating the sexes at a party (even a religious one at the Holy Temple) than at a synagogue where people are praying. It is not obvious that one can make an a fortiori argument from the Temple case to all synagogues. Indeed, that parallel would have been more apt if we applied it to placing some form of separation in a synagogue’s social hall. One expects levity at parties, but not necessarily at prayers. Accordingly, there is no reason to assume Temple officials banned women from the lower level of the Ezrat Nashim, except during party hours.
  2.  A balcony, not a meḥitza, was constructed in the Temple. Most balconies can function as a meḥitza (as one of the primary goals of a meḥitza is to separate), but a meḥitza is not usually a balcony; rather a meḥitza enjoys laws that are specific to it: it must be at least ten tefaḥim (unit of length corresponding to the length of a palm) high and enjoys certain additional requirements regarding the nature of the wall itself. A balcony, on the other hand, is just a separate floor. I personally would not call a balcony a meḥitza, but rather a separate area. And, regarding a balcony, you can still see the women from the ground floor, eye to eye, talk with them, and depending on the length of the skirt…
  3. Even if the balcony can be qualified as a type of meḥitza, separating the genders by relocating one to a balcony was not the ideal way that the Temple officials would have wanted to deal with the fraternizing. They first tried to re-orient traffic. That did not work. But what if it did? Obviously that would have been good enough, and the Temple officials would not have needed to construct the balcony. So, if the traffic-change was an acceptable option, (assuming it worked) why do we assume that the Sages made an eternal decree that balconies are the only way to minimize fraternizing? Maybe we should always begin by changing traffic, and subsequently go the balcony route in our synagogues today?

Accordingly, based on these three aforementioned issues, it is quite problematic to cull the notion of the meḥitza from the Talmudic source and simply import it to our modern synagogues. However, that is not the end of the story. There is another way that we may be able to introduce a meḥitza into our synagogues. There are certain problems that might arise during prayer that are me’akeiv. (We mentioned a few above.) When something is me’akeiv, it obviates the possibility of the religious action taking place. For example, one cannot recite the Shma without some separation between one’s genitals and his heart. If he does recite the Shma without this separation, then it is considered as if he did not execute that commandment; indeed, it would have to be repeated in full once he acquires this separation if he wants to fulfill that commandment. Similarly, prayer without a meḥitzah might be me’akeiv for another reason. But what?
In general, the construction of a meḥitza will facilitate one or both of the following two matters: separation, and eliminating or at least minimizing visibility. If the meḥitza does not separate, it is not a meḥitza. In other words, a meḥitza is first and foremost a wall. Some walls don’t extend all the way to the ground, some are made of translucent material, some are not very high, some are lattice, etc. Consequently, the Rabbis derive the laws of meḥitza from the laws that regulate the definition of a regular wall (which is important for defining land ownership). R. Moshe Feinstein took this approach and it is reflected throughout his responsa writings on the topic of meḥitza (3). The second issue, visibility beyond the partition, is a bit harder to define. Different types of walls affect the line of vision between people on opposite sides of the partition differently: you can see through, over, or under certain walls. Not all walls eliminate the line of vision between the two sides at all. So now we may ask: given that the two primary features of a wall are separation and minimization of visibility, is there a specific problem with seeing or not separating from women during prayers?
(A) First there is the issue of kalot rosh (frivolity or silliness). It is forbidden to pray with kalot rosh. While speaking to women is not truly a normative example of kalot rosh, some Rabbis identify conversing with females as the paradigm of kalot rosh.
(B) When females are visible (and sometimes not visible) to males during prayers, and vice verse, one encounters the issue of forbidden (sexual) thoughts. In general, this was the primary issue that a meḥitza addresses for the Ḥatam Sofer. (4)

Are these two issues truly issues? The truth is, even without executing a religious action, it is forbidden to sexualize females in your head. Rav Sheishet says that whoever looks at the pinky of a woman, needs atonement as if he stared at her genitals (Shabbat 64b). Rambam explains: One may not gaze at the beauty of a (woman forbidden to him as an) ervah (forbidden sexual partner)… If he does so for pleasure, he receives lashes. Looking even at the pinky for pleasure is like looking at the place of ervah. In other words, one may not look at any part of the female body for pleasure. (Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 21:2). (5) Rambam adds: One may not look at women hanging up laundry. It is even forbidden to look at colored clothing of a woman he recognizes lest he come to have thoughts. In fact, throughout chapter 21, Rambam enumerates a list of actions that one is forbidden from engaging in because of its licentious nature. The Tur, who mostly cuts and pastes that chapter from the Rambam adds: One should stay very far away from women. He may not motion with his hands or wink at one of the arayot (forbidden relations) and he may not laugh with her or… look at her or even smell her perfume. And it is forbidden to even look at the colored garments of a woman he knows (Even Ha-Ezer 21). We see from these Rabbis that peering at females (for pleasure) is not specifically a prayer issue but always an issue, independent of when it is occurring.
Furthermore, we must note another issue which, arguably, undermines the position that peering at females (in a non-pleasure seeking way) invalidates prayers . One differentiation that halakhists many times fail to make is the difference between reciting the Shma and praying the Amida (the tri-daily recitation of the 19 blessings). The Shulḥan Arukh devotes sixteen chapters (O”Ḥ 73-88) to the different situations that would make it impossible to recite the Shma and have it count to fulfill one’s Biblical obligation. There are a whole other set of rules by Amida (O”Ḥ 90-104). There are some overlaps (like if one has to fart – O”Ḥ 92), but in truth, the two sets of rules are completely self-contained and do not apply one to the other. This concept is sometimes very hard for people to internalize. After all, the Shma is said immediately before Amida and they both feel like the same thing; they both feel like prayer. But they are not the same things. When one recites the Shma, one is fulfilling one of the 613 Biblical commandments: just like shaking the lulav (palm-frond) on Sukkot, the daily donning of tefillin (phylacteries) or affixing a mezuzah to one’s doorframe. It just so happens that the way that one fulfills this commandment is through reciting something, as opposed to doing something. Accordingly, it is just a coincidence that we fulfill the commandment to pray and the Shma through recitation, and that coincidence makes them feel so similar. That being clear, it should come as no surprise that two sets of mostly unrelated laws govern the when, how and if the Shma or Amida can take place and still be regarded as halakhicly valid. Accordingly, while females are mentioned (in certain guises) as impediments to validly reciting the Shma, they are actually never mentioned ever as an issue that can be an impediment to validly reciting the Amida. That alone should point to the fact that according to Jewish Law one is permitted to, at least, see a woman during prayers without the prayer becoming null in void.

Last, while the issue of kalot rosh should be taken into consideration when reciting the Amida, as kalot rosh is one of the listed impediments to a successful Amida, the matter should be evaluated on an individual level without making blanket statements. For example, if one cannot concentrate on his/her Amida when the other sex is in the same room, and for that person, this lack of concentration leads to kalot rosh, even with a meḥitza, it would be forbidden for that person to participate in that prayer session.


  • It is not at all obvious from the Talmudic text that a synagogue needs a meḥitza. The Temple balcony itself, specified as employed during religious parties, is not a good paradigm for learning out the necessity or the laws of meḥitza.
  • The Talmud never says that having women in eye-sight is a form of kalot rosh. Also, that would be a strange usage of the phrase ‘kalot rosh’.
  • While it is forbidden to derive pleasure from peering at a female, that does not apply more so to the times of reciting the Amida than any other times. So, while it is appropriate to do all we can to ensure that such thoughts are excluded (or at least minimized) during prayer services, that does not mean women must be out of sight for men to be able to pray. Otherwise, R. Moshe Feinstein would not permit the type of meḥitza that he allowed, and the Temple would not allow the construction of the balcony as it did.
  • There is a special law not to peer at the parts of females that are generally covered during the recital of the Shma. Nonetheless, one may look away or close one’s eyes during those moments. Furthermore, as that proscription only applies to parts of a female that are usually covered, in our society, arguably, not much of the female would fall under this category.

Now we may conclude with a case study.
 The case: An Orthodox Jew attends a Reform or Conservative prayer service. All the Jews (and possibly non-Jews) present are congregated together without a meḥitza. What does this mean for the Orthodox Jew?
First, obviously it is best to pray in an Orthodox environment for this person. Even after all we said, there is a massive benefit to a meḥitza. Most males lack the willpower to refrain from deriving pleasure from the females around them. While there is nothing the Rabbis can do for the street masses save tell them to walk with their eyes focused towards the ground (which some do, and some regularly walk into walls), it should be obvious that during the time that we devote to worshipping God (ie prayer), the Rabbis ought to place extra protections to minimize or eliminate these forbidden thoughts. That being said, considering all that we have pointed out above, it seems that an Orthodox individual may pray in that room, even though it is best not to. In other words, the meḥitza is not me’akeiv.
Given the case, however, there are many other issues that have to be dealt with:

  1. If there are ten Jewish adult males present, I do not see why this would not count for a minyan, even if they are dispersed among the women or non-Jews.
  2. Even if the Jews desecrate the Sabbath publicly (by driving or using their iphones at prayers), this does not invalidate them for counting towards a minyan (quorum).
  3. It is forbidden to stare or even look at the females in a sexual manner, but that has nothing to do specifically with prayers. That is always a rule. But, if the female presence would lead to kalot rosh for you, it would be forbidden to recite the Amida.
  4. During the recitation of the Shma, he would have to close his eyes or look away. But, as the most halakhic authorities are solely worried about a male seeing a feature of the female that is usually unexposed (S”A 75), or a voice/song that one is unaccustomed to hearing (Rema 75:3) during the recitation of the Shma, that should not be a problem in this environment.
  5. Furthermore, most Modern Orthodox Jews, in general, do not take into consideration female dress or headcoverings at the Shabbat table (and look away if necessary during Kiddush (sanctification prayer) and welcome female singing at synagogue (and some at the Shabbat table).

It seems to me that there is no me’akeiv here that would make the recitation of the Shma or prayer impossible for the Orthodox Jew at the Reform or Conservative.
To finish, I would like to offer two accounts I’ve heard many times. Famously, Rabbi Soloveitchik use to give heiterim (permission) to Orthodox rabbis to accept Conservative appointments even though the synagogue either lacked a Kosher Meḥitza or did not have one at all. This consent was only temporary, and after five years or so, R. Soloveitchik pre-warned the rabbinical appointee that the synagogue must erect or raise the meḥitza (depending on the situation) or the rabbi must quit. While Judaism embraces certain utilitarian trends, Briskers do not as quickly. Accordingly, this story always struck me as weird. In fact, this story should be enough to rule that, in fact, praying without a meḥitza is not technically me’akeiv to prayers. Otherwise, R. Soloveitchik could not have allowed such a stipulation. R. Soloveitchik would have never allowed, even temporarily, for example, prayer at a nudist colony. Furthermore, R. Soloveitchik was wont to also say it is better not to hear the shofar blown in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah – a Biblical commandment – than to hear it at a synagogue without a meḥitzah. Both these stories illustrate the fact that, at least in R. Soloveitchik’s case, there were extra-halakhic considerations directing his rulings regarding mechitzot. If it was forbidden to pray without a meḥitzah present, I doubt that Rabbi Soloveitchik would allow it under any circumstances. Similarly, even if it is was forbidden to pray at a certain synagogue for some reason, still we would not expect that impediment to be taken into consideration when we evaluate whether one heard a valid shofar blowing. (6)


(1) And, for those who have visited Tzefat, note that there was a women’s section in R. Yosef Karo’s synagogue. It just happened to be behind a big wall, and hence did not need an additional meḥitza.

(2) See I Chronicles 28:11


  •  The meḥitza need be at least shoulder height. In other words, one can see over  it (O”Ḥ 1:40, 42).
  • Glass is permitted to be used as a meḥitza even though you can see right through it (O”Ḥ 1:43).
  • A synagogue that does not have a meḥitza should at least have the men and women sit at separate sides (O”Ḥ 1:44).
  • The meḥitza can have tiny holes in it (O”Ḥ 4:32).  All of these laws reflect the fact that R.  Moshe Feinstein viewed the primary function of a meḥitza as separation.

(4) Accordingly, when one reads through the Ḥatam Sofer on the topic of meḥitza, there is a
focus about ensuring that males and females cannot see one another through the meḥitza.

(5) Note how Rambam adds the words “for pleasure” ensuring that one is not sinning every
time that he looks at a female.

(6) See the Laws of Shofar blowing


Filed under Halakha

A Response To Rabbi Sacks: Survival of the Religious

By Gene Matanky

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recently wrote an article in the New York Times entitled “The Moral Animal”, in which he points to the evolutionary need for religion. Surprisingly, Sacks tells us, it is the evolution theory of Darwin which shows us the importance of religion and why it continues to survive.

According to evolutionary biology, although man gives his genes as an individual to the next generation, he can in fact only survive in the first place if he is part of a group that works together. The genes that allow man to become stronger as a member of a group are the genes that cause altruism and empathy, and allow people to bond and feel for each other.

As Rabbi Sacks writes, “A result is that we have two patterns of reaction in the brain, one focusing on potential danger to us as individuals, the other, located in the prefrontal cortex, taking a more considered view of the consequences of our actions for us and others. The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational. We are caught, in the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s phrase, between thinking fast and slow.”

He continues to explain why religion is so vital to this process of both thinking fast and slow: “Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions.” Therefore, instead of evolution refuting the need for religion, it is actually its greatest supporter! Rabbi Sacks thus triumphantly concludes that “Religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance is…a better predictor of altruism than education, age, income, gender or race. Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology.”

The Chief Rabbi has done a wonderful job defending religion in this article, but he has unfortunately let down those who want more than just religion; those who thirst for the Living God. His argument has marginalized religion as a necessary institution for the survival of mankind, and made it less than what it really is: a medium to experience the transcendent. Sadly, Rabbi Sacks’ religion may survive in the modern world, but only because he replaced what it stands for.

Religion is something that should bind us together as a community, as Rabbi Sacks writes, but that is not its main purpose; its main purpose is to be a bridge across the chasm which separates God and man. Religion allows us to be a voice of compassion not because it’s good for the survival of man, but because that is what God commands of us. God demands that we care for those on the periphery of society, but this is not for our selfish need of survival, but rather it is because He wills that we do not accept evil.

According to Sacks’ logic it doesn’t matter whether we are idol worshipers or monotheists, as long as it creates community. Our religion could command us to be racists, homophobic, or genocidal, but as long as we all are doing it together, a community is created, and that is what matters.

The prophets taught us that this is incorrect. They did not wage a war against the prophets of Baal because it was vital to the survival of mankind, but for the sake of the Living God. The worshipers of Baal also had a community, but that was not the problem with them, nor was it the solution.

Not only did the prophets attack the worshipers of Baal, but when the people of Israel went astray, Isaiah said:

“The multitude of your sacrifices– what are they to me?” says the LORD….”Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations– I cannot bear your evil assemblies…Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”

The people were bound together as a community, and they had religion; but God doesn’t want any of this. He wants them to seek justice and righteousness.

I am not saying that this was Rabbi Sacks’ intention, but in my opinion, this is the effect. It is quite analogous to what Erich Fromm (a non-theist himself) had to say about a similar situation in the 1960’s: “The religious “renaissance” which we witness in these days is perhaps the worst blow monotheism has yet received. Is there any greater sacrilege than to speak of “the Man upstairs,” to teach to pray in order to make God your partner in business, to “sell” religion with the methods and appeals used to sell soap?”

It is my profound hope that the new atheists win out on this argument, and by doing so resurrect the Living God, so we are not simply left with nothing more than an evolutionary necessity.

Gene Matanky studies Jewish Thought in Bar Ilan University. He is also involved with מרק״ם and the Boger community of Midreshet Ein Prat.


Filed under Miscellaneous

Where is God?

​By Gene Matanky

In Hasidut we find two opposing conceptions of God’s place in the world. One being that God is everywhere, meaning that God is not only to be found in learning Torah, but also in prayer, in nature, in our fellow man, and most importantly inside each and every one of us. The notion that God is to be found EVERYWHERE is revolutionary for the religious man; it bestows the divine in the mundane, in the average man.

​However within Hasidic thought there is a drastically different, and seemingly contradictory, conception of God; that God is in exile from His world. This view is expressed in the following stories:

“The Baal Shem Tov was walking once when he spotted a little girl crying. He asked her, “What is the matter?”. She responded, “I’m playing hide-and-seek, but no one came to find me.” At this the Baal Shem Tov said, “And so too it is with us, God is hiding, but we don’t look for Him”.

So too, R’ Shmelke would say that until we began to pray for the Shechina which is in exile, instead of for ourselves, the Messiah would not come.

This idea of God not being able to be found is brought to its climax in the thought of the Kotzker Rebbe. The Kotzker Rebbe asked his Hasidim, “Where is God to be found?”. Answering his own question to them, he explained that “God is found wherever man lets Him in.”

According to these stories, God is not everywhere, but is in fact far away in exile! How may we explain the incongruity between these two opinions of where God is to be found?

A. J. Heschel, although not directly speaking about this subject, sheds light on it. In his work “The Sabbath” he speaks about the plight of modern man. Modern man, Heschel writes, lives in a world which pursues and values things and objects, such as the domination of nature, and a materialistic lifestyle. He seeks to use others (not just people, but anything that is outside the self) as objects and therefore does not relate to them as subjects in and of themselves.

The problem, he explains, is that when man treats others as tools to be used, he becomes one himself. One becomes a “self” by incorporating the “non-self”, the understanding that one is more than his “ego”. The “ego” is essentially a survival mechanism, a machine, and by only acting as the “ego” without any regard for the “other”, one becomes what is, essentially, only a machine.

Here lies the answer. There is no real difference between the conception that God is everywhere or that He is only to be found where man lets him in. If I may rephrase the Kotzker, his question is not “Where is God?”, but “Where is man?”.

The answer is that man is wherever he lets God in. God is everywhere. However it is man who is not always to be found.

In Heschel’s thought, caring for something outside of ourselves is to transcend the self, and only when we transcend ourselves can we be called human. By relating to others as subjects we become subjects too, thereby making room for God, the subject par excellance.

There is a parable R’ Nachman would give of someone standing by an amazing view, mountains, valleys, rivers, and forests. Another man joined him and placed his hand in front of the first man’s face, blocking his view.

The hand is so much smaller than the mountains and valleys, R’ Nachman explained, however it can still block them. So it is with us; the objects of this world are so much smaller than God yet they can block Him from our view. It is our task, we learn from Hasidut, to see God anyway.


Gene Matanky studies Jewish Thought in Bar Ilan University. He is also involved with מרק״ם and the Boger community of Midreshet Ein Prat.

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Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus

Haveil Havalim!

Today we are hosting the Haveil Havalim Blog Carnival, which gathers some great posts each week from around the Jewish blogosphere (not a real word). I hope you enjoy it!

Not surprisingly, we have a lot about Channukah:

You might start off your Channukah reading by counting Chanukiyot with The Real Jerusalem Streets, or check out the lighting at the Western Wall or in a Yeshiva, or you might want to learn about a new Channuka game (for the last day!) over at me-ander.

Alternatively, you might take this opportunity to learn more about traditional Channuka recipes with with some non-traditional teachers, or simply enjoy the other delicious looking recipes there.

Finally, a little Channuka puzzle and holiday fun finishes off Channuka over at Tomer Devora. Don’t forget to tell her what you think!

Getting into the Parsha and Torah a bit, you might want to check out the ways of a Zaddik with the Heart of Adam, where he also has some thoughts about Yosef and making this world a spiritual one.

Of course, among bloggers, Judaism, politics, and Zionism, are often intertwined. That’s why Esser Agaroth has something to say about the Maccabees, what’s “unjewish”, and government policies.

That’s also why Batya Medad’s musings focus on Zionism, Channukah, and Heroism.

We also have a short post from Ariel Ben Yochanan proving the IDF isn’t a Jewish army. I don’t agree with him myself, but check it out at the Torah Revolution!

Finally, politics and God meet again for an Israeli soldier mother, who has a lot of thoughts about her homeland, E1, and speaking to people with a very different perspective.

For more political analysis and new Jewish mindset, check out what Yoel Meltzer has to say, but if you just want to learn more about Israel by taking a trip, then let me-ander be your guide!

Lastly, at Beneath the Wings you can read some powerful thoughts about recovering from loss, or enjoy a nostalgiac look at her very first post, which deals with some thoughts about weight loss.

I hope you enjoy, and have a (last bit of) Channuka Sameach!

Note: Haveil Havalim is a weekly blog carnival that includes posts from all around the Jewish blogosphere, and anyone can join the facebook group and contribute or just follow it!

Basically, each week the host will post on the facebook group how they would like to receive your contributions, and it’s a great opportunity to get your blog out there while getting to know some other bloggers and seeing what the Jewish blogosphere is up to.

Next week’s is going to be hosted by Esser Agaroth, and I hope you decide to check it out and join!


Filed under Miscellaneous

Why Worship an Imperfect God?

Yoram Hazony’s thought provoking article in the New York Times has received many responses, some thoughtful themselves, others less so1. In short, he argues that the God of the Bible is an imperfect God, and that this is actually a more plausible God as well. However, philosophers have avoided this conception because such a God is less likely to win our allegiance.

Indeed, this was the question that popped into my mind when I read the piece: Why worship an imperfect God?

I’m aware the discussion is way over my head, so I’m really just putting down my reaction here, which I hope is valid. I can’t be clear enough that these are waters I’m not qualified to wade into, but since I haven’t seen anyone else write this, and I think I’ve given a clear disclaimer, I want to discuss the question.

Anyway, if God is perfect, then there really isn’t much to discuss, since it then seems obvious that we should worship Him: God is perfect, therefore His will is perfect, and therefore we should accept His will, which is to listen to Him. For the Orthodox Jew this means following Jewish law.

However, if God is imperfect then this little train of thought falls apart, and we have to wonder if it possible to worship God if this is the case. I want to be clear that I’m not advocating the position that God is imperfect, but simply asking if He could demand our worship if this was true.

I believe the answer is yes, and I will suggest that there are at least two ways to explain this in light of the classical Jewish relationship with God.

  1. God as Creator and Lawmaker: If God is imperfect this does not affect His role as unique lawmaker for the world. God may be imperfect, whatever that means, but as He is still the sole creator and arbiter of right and wrong, the necessary and unnecessary, and who may hold legal power, we are bound to follow His will. Objective reality has been imbued with His particular brand of meaning and therefore the rules He has determined are objective as far as we are concerned. In short, we are bound by them.
  2. God as Beloved: This is the other core aspect of the relationship between God and the Jewish people. God is our father, our Sheppard, and our concerned King in our liturgy, and we love Him with all of our hearts, our souls, and our strength. He took us out of Egypt and hears our cries, and we have a special bond with Him which was given legal status and meaning through Jewish law. This being the case, we do not wonder whether or not God is perfect, but rather we worship Him out of love.

There may be other ways to explain why we would still worship an imperfect God, including simply explaining that Judaism doesn’t really bother with this question, but merely assumes that we must fulfill our obligations from Sinai. I am not out to defend one particular view or another, but simply to argue that this concept may possibly be considered not only compatible with the traditional Jewish understanding of how we relate to God, but also with the concept that we must follow Jewish law.

Lastly, I should probably mention that this view violates Rambam’s 13 principles, and in his opinion, as noted earlier in this blog, this means that anyone who holds it should be hated and destroyed. See that post for the “on the other hand”…


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Lemony Snicket and the Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming

ImageI bet you didn’t know Lemony Snicket, author of A Series of Unfortunate Events, is Jewish. Well, I’m not sure he is, but he wrote a book called ‘The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story’, and he really seems to know a lot about Channuka, which I think can be taken as an indicator that he is one of the circumcised.

The premise of the story (which is very short, and worth reading, I think) is that a latke, newly formed, is tossed into some burning oil and begins to scream, presumably from the pain. The little potato pancake runs out into the street, and outside he meets many features of Christmas, which is also being celebrated at this time.

One of his little meetings (in between screaming, which continues for most of the short story) is with some Christmas lights. Since this is a whimsical Christmas story, all of the inanimate objects can speak, and the latke explains a bit about himself to the lights, specifically why he was thrown into oil:

“Because I’m a latke,” said the latke. “The olive oil reminds us of the oil used to rededicate the temple following the defeat of Antiochus at the hands of the Maccabees. The oil was only supposed to last for one night but there was a miracle and it lasted for eight. Plus, frying makes my skin crispy and brown.”

“So you’re basically hash browns,” said the flashing colored lights. “Maybe you can be served alongside a Christmas ham.”

“I’m not hash browns!” cried the latke. “I’m something completely different!”

The latke’s little protest really resonates with me, not only in regards to what he chooses to protest, but also to how he chooses to do it.

First of all, what really is the difference between a latke and hash brown? I don’t know, but I’ve only had hash browns once, and it kind of seemed the same to me. (I don’t particularly love latkes, so you can imagine my disappointment when I tasted hash browns, a sort of classic pop culture food, for the first time…Why are you giving me a latke on any day that isn’t Channuka?)

But the latke is right. He is endowed with a different meaning, and can never just be a potato pancake. This is more than saying the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Here the perspective and the history are just completely different, so that there’s nothing in common between the latke and the hash brown! Ham and a latke? You must be joking!

The latke reserves the right to define itself, or perhaps more exactly, to let itself be defined by the Jewish perspective, which is what I think we are supposed to do. If a Christian converts to Judaism, I do not suppose that person simply takes the Bible and says “Oh yes. That’s the same Abraham.” It’s a totally different Abraham, actually! And you can’t just read a midrash and think you know who he is, you have to be immersed in Jewish tradition to feel that he is your forefather, and that there’s a personal element to this!

But it isn’t simply that the latke reserves the right to define itself. It is the argument he chooses to propose. “It’s completely different.”

Well, what a stupid argument! You can’t just say that and pretend it’s true! If it’s different, then explain it! If it’s not, then don’t!

But this again, refers back to the latke’s experience, and the role this plays in his self definition. The latke doesn’t simply examine the world and plug in numbers, definitions, and assumptions so that he can solve the equation for “Self”. We’re not separated from our experiences so that we should be able to simply do that.

Now, that’s not to say we shouldn’t do our best to rationally observe and weigh our experiences, traditions, and thoughts. I personally am uncomfortable simply saying “it’s completely different” without justifying this point, unless someone really just wants to know my feelings on a certain matter.

In an honest conversation we can shed our subjective outlooks, at least for a time, and conduct a conversation that is objective and adheres to shared rules. But when it comes to making a judgment call for myself or about myself, I simply cannot take out the personal element that is so important to who I am.

I think the latke believes this as well. That is one inspiring latke.

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Do Your Dreams Really Matter? Joseph’s Did…..Kind of

The only two examples of Jews interpreting dreams in Tanakh are of Yoseif and Daniel: both in the courts of non-Jewish kings. To me, this is all one needs to know about Judaism’s stance on dreams; but, this is not to say that Judaism does not recognize the importance of dreams. Both Avraham and Yaakov anticipated and dreamed of the day when their progeny would become a nation and worship the one God. Yoseif, on the other hand, dreamed of the day when he would rule his family. Either this dream is the product of an egotistical youth not yet weathered by the vicissitudes of life, or the Torah is submitting to us a crystal clear window into Yoseif’s heart and vision.

In truth, even if one puts aside his dreams, from his youth, Yoseif was a leader. This can be seen from the fact that the Torah states that Yoseif brought negative reports regarding his brothers to their father Yaakov. While one can slander Yoseif and call him a tattle-tale (even according to the Midrashim that claim the brothers only seemed to be sinning), in truth he was acting as his father instructed. Yaakov commanded Yoseif to bring these reports: “And Israel said to Yoseif: ‘Your brothers are pasturing in Shechem, are they not?’ Come, I will send you to them.… Go now, look into the welfare of your brothers and the welfare of the flock, and bring me back word” (37:13-4). True, the Torah calls the reports bad. But, that is just describing the nature of the reports: the brothers were acting improperly, hence they were bad. In fact, the three biblical stories regarding the brothers, independent of Yoseif, taken literally are: 1: Shimon and Levi executing all the males of Shechem, 2: Reuvein sleeping with his step-mother, and 3: Yehudah marrying a Cnaanite and frequenting prostitutes. Not exactly stories that evince righteousness. Yoseif’s reports could not have been much worse than the Torah’s reports! Also, Yoseif did not go out to the pasture with his fellow shepherd brothers. Instead, he remained with his father. It must be that he stayed behind because he was part of the managerial staff. In fact, some commentators explain that the ketonet passim (the garment that Yaakov bestowed upon Yoseif that enraged his brothers) was a garment that indicated his choice status among his brothers. Also, his father sent him to check on their well-being and that of the flock. He was a leader even in his youth.

Throughout Yoseif’s life, everything he did was blessed. But, as opposed to the forefathers who have direct interactions with God, and the occasional miraculous intervention, like Esther HaMalka, God is never found openly in Yoseif’s life. In fact, the only time God is even mentioned is when Yoseif unilaterally attributes interpretations of dreams to Him. While God may be the source of blessing, the nature of God’s interaction in the world from the Yoseif perspective is indirect. In fact, not only is Yoseif the dreamer, but he is also the realizer of the dreams. In the following, I will argue that Yoseif is a highly skilled and intelligent socio-economic political leader who always ensures that he fills leadership vacuums, all the way from the top of his life until he dies at the age of 110. The dreams come true because he ensures as much.

The most important catalyst in Yoseif’s life, the cause of much family strife and personal promotion was his dreams. While it is not hard to understand the root of Yoseif’s youthful dreams, how are we to understand Yoseif’s ability to interpret the dreams of the baker, of the butler and of Pharaoh? How did he know how to interpret dreams in the first place? Does God ensure that Yoseif’s interpretation comes to pass or is his prowess a level of prophecy? Really, one needn’t appeal to either of these options to understand Yoseif’s supernatural ability. Let us start with Yoseif’s first successful dream interpretation as his personal dreams were solely interpreted (mostly correctly) by his father and brothers, without him ever uttering a word either way regarding their meaning. While in jail for allegedly raping Potifar’s wife, Yoseif interpreted two separate dreams: one indicating that the offender would be vindicated and returned to his previous post in three days time, and the other sentenced to death also in three days. While Yoseif’s degree of precision and accuracy in his interpretations seem to prove he was blessed with a unique gift, there is actually more taking place behind the scenes than simple dream interpretation. For example, Pharaoh’s birthday – the only birthday mentioned in Tanakh – was well known to be the annual ‘Day of Judgment’ for those incarcerated in Egyptian jails. In other words, independent of the two dreams, Yoseif already knew that the two would be judged in three days time. Furthermore, Yoseif was the head foreman of the jail for many years, possibly as many as twelve. It would be silly to misjudge Yoseif and claim that he did not know, at least, the basic rules of Egyptian jurisprudence. Before the two stood before Pharaoh for judgment, Yoseif already knew their future. It is quite possible that the two also already knew their own fates as well, but as many incarcerated individuals remain optimistic, and hope that the standard punishment need not apply to him, for some reason or another, they were unable to see their fates for what they truly were: sealed. Here, Yoseif is not a prophet, not a mystical dream interpreter, but simply a man who can ‘ro’e et hanolad,’ foresee the obvious consequences, when others are blinded by subjectivity.

When we analyze Yoseif’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams, we find many suspicious elements ingrained in Yoseif’s interpretation. First, before Pharaoh even has a chance to comment on its validity or worth, Yoseif continues, apparently as though it were part of the interpretation: “Now let Pharaoh seek out a discerning and wise man and set him over the land of Egypt…. so that the land will not perish in the famine” (41:33-6). Part of the interpretation was the establishment of a new economic vizier who would be the savior of the country and region. Now, is there any reason that this new appointment should be an element of the interpretation? No one asked Yoseif for advice! In truth, Yoseif was establishing a leadership role for himself through the interpretation. And Pharaoh and his servants fell right into his hands.

If it is true as we have hypothesized so far, that Yoseif’s gift to interpret dreams is more a consequent of his intellectual abilities than his spiritual capabilities, then how do we account for the famine? How did Yoseif know that there would be one? First we should note that Yoseif announced that there would be seven years of abundance and seven of famine. But did that ever happen? Rashi explains that only two years of famine ravished the land. Once Yaakov arrived in Egypt, the famine instantly ended. There is no textual reason to deny this claim. So, while there were seven years of abundance, the seven years of famine never materialized.  Nonetheless, everything else went so well up to then, there was no reason to hold Yoseif accountable for this failing. In fact, we could be sure that Pharaoh and the Egyptians were quite happy that there was a sudden cessation to the famine. Also, the verse states: “The earth produced during the seven years of abundance by the handfuls” (41:47), there are two ways to read this: 1. A tremendous amount was collected. But, when the Torah wants to say ‘a lot,’ it usually uses a word or a phrase like ‘uncountable’ or ‘without number.’ 2. Accordingly, the fact that it says “handfuls” seems to imply that the human element is what made the amount so much. The Egyptians made sure to gather every grain, every drop, during those years of abundance, and that is what made it into years of abundance.

But, how could Yoseif ensure that there would be years of famine following these years of abundance. The Torah commands that the Israelites leave their land fallow every seventh year, to uphold the Shmittah year. As the Torah commands not only for the perfection of the individual/society, but also for the benefit of surroundings, the Torah must be telling us that working a land for seven straight years will damage the land. As Egypt controlled the Levant during Yoseif’s reign, the Egyptians were able to overwork the land for seven years, ensuring that all the Egyptian and surrounding lands would be depleted of the soil nutrients for a normal crop in the eighth year and not produce a harvest, thereby guaranteeing a year, or more, of famine. This explains why Yaakov can command his sons to take of “the land’s glory,” including “balsam, honey, wax, lotus, pistachios and almonds,” (43:11) as these items would be unaffected by overworking the land.

If it is Yoseif that implemented a plan that would lead to himself lording over others, why was it necessary for him to torture his brothers? Some commentators like pointing out that Yoseif actively attempted to make sure that every aspect of his dreams come true. This is intellectually repulsive. Why would he care? He was already on top of the food chain, he did not need to rub their noses in it. Furthermore, as Rashi points out, Yoseif’s mother was dead so it was unlikely that Rachel would be prostrating before him any time soon. In order to understand why Yoseif mentally tortured his brothers, we must look at the formation of Bnei Yisrael. As is made clear in several places, a nation, in the Torah is started by twelve men, so when Yaakov fathered twelve sons, clearly that was meant to be the beginning of the nation. This is in stark contrast to Avraham and Yitzchak who both fathered two main sons, one of which would officially pass on the tradition, and the other lost to the nation. But, were the twelve sons meant to be the nation or were the grandchildren of Rachel meant to be the Israelites? Let us remember that Yoseif had two sons and Benjamin had ten: twelve in total. Clearly, the Torah is telling us that Yoseif and Binyamin might have just been another rung in the family tree before the nation was formed, like Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov was. Obviously, had this situation materialized, the other ten tribes would have been thrown into the group of potentially important, but in the end failed offspring of forefathers, like Yishmael and Eisav. Also, the Midrash points out that Yoseif should have had ten more sons, but lost them when he desired Potifar’s wife. This Midrash also means to convey the idea that, as opposed to Rachel’s offspring of both Yoseif and Binyamin representing the start of the nation, Yoseif could have been one of the four forefathers, and the Israelites would have been his twelve sons.

Yoseif was testing his brothers to see whether they were so far gone that they had to be excluded from Klal Yisrael or was there still hope for them. When Yehuda took responsibility for his brother, and openly displayed his penitent heart, it was made clear once and for all, that it was unnecessary to jettison the other ten brothers from Klal Yisrael. Had Yoseif not tortured the brothers, they would not have had the chance to prove themselves and become re-included in Klal Yisrael.

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Filed under Parshah, Rationalism

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Making Gold from Copper

 By Yitzchok Tendler

Catchy title, huh? Despite what you may have thought, this is not merely a misleading gimmick to get you to read my article. In fact, if you stick with me here, you will get practical, step-by-step guidance on how to make gold from copper. So, if you are bummed about not winning the powerball last week, this is  the next best way to become millionaire.

Before we start on the good stuff (please don’t skip ahead), let me begin with a caveat: I take no responsibility for any injuries that may be sustained in following this advice. I have never tried this personally, nor do I know anyone who has; I am simply recording a supposedly ancient Jewish source which tells you how to make gold.

Yes, I know that this smacks of alchemy’s age-old quest to turn lead into gold, which, by the way, may actually have succeeded. So, relax and give this a shot.

Exhibit A  

Our first source is a verse in last week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, which names a chieftain of Esau named Hadad, and then adds some information about his spouse “…and the name of his wife was Meheitav-el, the daughter of Matred, the daughter of Mei-Zahav” (Genesis 36:39).

What kind of name is Mei-Zahav, literally translated as “waters of gold”? Was this Barry Goldwater’s granddaughter? (ha ha, just cracked myself up!) Let’s start with the more tame approaches:

Rashi – “‘mei’ is really ‘mahu – what is it?’. Meaning, he was so wealthy that gold was like nothing to him”. Nice, fits well and makes sense.

Onkelos – “They were goldsmiths”. Wonderful. See Targum Yonasan ben Uziel and Targum Yerushalmi for approaches that contain interesting variations of these two opinions.

Now, let’s jump to the fun part:

Ibn Ezra – After quoting some of the above, he writes that “some say that this is a hint to the art of making gold from copper, but these are “divrei ru’ach (vain, empty words)” (emphasis added).

The point is, that Ibn Ezra is quoting some unnamed biblical commentators who believed that this dude named Mei-Zahav (who we know nothing else about) knew how to make gold from copper. Ibn Ezra, ever the Jewish rationalist of the Spanish renaissance, dismisses this claim.

Exhibit B

A very fascinating man named Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein lived and studied in Lithuania from 1860-1941. He was the son of the great Rabbi Yechiel Michel Halevi Epstein, Rabbi of Novardhok and renowned author of the monumental halachic work Aruch Hashulchan. Additionally, his uncle was the famed “Netziv”, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, Rosh Yeshiva of the flagship Lithuanian yeshiva, Volozhin.

In addition to coming from such illustrious Rabbinic stock, the younger Rabbi Epstein, despite being a bookkeeper by profession, was a noted Torah scholar in his own right. There is almost no synagogue or yeshiva in the world that does not carry his work “Torah Temima”, a highly informative and innovative commentary on Talmudic and Midrashic texts which he placed alongside the biblical source that spawned them. Despite some minor controversy, Torah Temima remains highly popular among the learned masses of Jews from across the spectrum.

Less well known, however, is another commentary he wrote on the Torah called “Tosefes Bracha”. This work is not formatted the same way as Torah Temima, and instead is a standard-design freestyle commentary on the Chumash. Unlike Mekor Baruch, Tosefes Bracha has not been reprinted any time recently and is fairly difficult to find (in fact, it isn’t even one of the 40,329 seforim freely available on! It is available on another site, though, here).

In Tosefes Bracha, commenting on the aforementioned verse, things begin to get very, very interesting. Rabbi Epstein first quotes the aforementioned comment of the Ibn Ezra, who, you will recall, quoted and then dismissed as “divrei ruach” other commentators who claimed that Mei-zahav refers to the art of making gold from copper. It seems to be fairly straightforward: Ibn Ezra is dismissing this likely superstitious, weird, and irrational assertion as total hogwash.

Rabbi Epstein, however, is not so sure. “I am unsure”, he writes. “If this ‘ru’ach’ of Ibn Ezra is really serving to dismiss the very possibility of making copper from gold. Perhaps it is merely dismissing the likelihood of this biblical name serving as an awkward reference to that possibility”. In other words, maybe Ibn Ezra simply doesn’t believe that this biblical name is a hint to this “art”, but he does believe in the real possibility of making gold from copper!

Conceding that this sounds like a far-fetched theory, Rabbi Epstein explains why, in fact, it is not so crazy:

“What brought me to this doubt is what I found in a Sephardic sefer called Nifla’ot Ma’asecha (printed in Livorno, Italy), where the author quotes a manuscript he found which describes how to transform copper to gold”.

This comment makes this source sound like a very ancient source: it is an obscure Sephardic book which quotes an unnamed manuscript. In truth, however, Nifla’ot Ma’asecha is a book of Segulot (spiritual remedies) written by Aleppo born Kabbalist Rabbi Avraham Chai Shalom Hamawi, who died in Iran in 1888, when Rabbi Epstein was around eighteen years old. This Rabbi Hamawi, who, according to wrote no less than 39 books, seems to have been a prolific writer on the topic of Segulot.

Getting back to Rabbi Epstein, his comment in Tosefes Bracha ends with this final line: “And if you want to know the details, see my book Mekor Baruch, Volume 3 chapter 19, subsection 6. It isn’t too difficult.”

Wow, very exciting! Now we just have to flip to exhibit 3, which is the passage in Mekor Baruch  referenced in Tosefes Bracha.

Exhibit C

Mekor Baruch is a very fascinating book. It is four volumes of stories, anecdotes, and Torah thoughts on every imaginable topic. It loosely serves as an autobiographical work which contains very interesting information on Rabbi Epstein’s life, that of his family (notably his uncle, the Netziv), and is a wonderful window into Eastern European life. In chapter 6 of volume 3 he relates several stories about a particular Magid, an itinerant preacher commonly found in Eastern Europe. This Magid apparently had a very difficult life, and complains bitterly to Rabbi Epstein about his plight. His grueling profession had him on the road for many months at a time, delivering homilies to audiences that were not always friendly.

Beyond everything else, what bothered the Magid the most was that he had once read in a book the secret to transforming copper to gold. At the time he had paid little notice to it, but as time went on and his personal troubles abounded he began to imagine that this secret could be solution to all of his problems. He had been so close to wealth and riches but, alas, he had forgotten where he had read this secret so he could not reference it, follow the instructions, and make his fortune. This pained him enormously.

Rabbi Epstein, in his vast and eclectic library, owned a copy of the aforementioned work, Nifla’ot Ma’asecha, source of the quoted manuscript containing this secret. He turned to the Magid and said, “I’ll make you a deal: I’ll show you the source containing the secret of ‘transforming copper to gold’ if, upon completing the process, you agree to split the profits with me 50-50”.

At first the magid didn’t believe Rabbi Epstein; after all, he had spent years searching high and low for this source and asking seasoned scholars, all to no avail. However, once the Magid was convinced by the assembled that Rabbi Epstein, in addition to possessing a virtually photographic memory that retained all information it absorbed also wasn’t one to be “pulling his leg”, his astonishment began to give way to more practical matters. he began bargaining and negotiating for greater shares of the anticipated gold. In truth, Rabbi Epstein writes that he himself didn’t believe and trust the efficacy of this alleged kaballistic process. However, once he recalled the Ibn Ezra quote from Vayishlach he began to entertain the possibility that this may actually work. He still was very skeptical, but, for fun, engaged in negotiations with the magid, eventually settling on a deal that gives 30% to Rabbi Epstein and leaves 70% for the magid. Additionally, rabbi Epstein promised not to show this secret to anyone else, lest he generate “competition” in the gold market.

Once the deal was struck with a formal handshake, Rabbi Epstein took the Magid privately to show him the sefer containing the coveted secret of “turning copper to gold”. The Magid, almost delirious from joy imagining the enormous potential for him and his family, promised to begin the process as soon as he returned to his hometown.

Unfortunately, the Magid didn’t live long enough to realize his dream; immediately upon returning home he  contracted the illness from which he eventually died. Rabbi Epstein writes that he forgot this entire story, until he began gathering information and sources for Mekor Baruch. Now, he writes, since the Magid is no longer alive I am absolved of my oath of secrecy and I can share this secret for the benefit of the public.

And now, finally, here is the actual text of  the manuscript quoted Nifla’ot Ma’asecha, by Rabbi Avraham Shalom Chai Hamawi:

“Take nine chicken eggs and place them in a pot. Cover the pot, and then place it under a putrid garbage pile for a minimum of 30 days. Next, open the eggs and you will find that each one now contains a worm. Transfer everything in the pot to another pot, and wait as the worms begin to grow and eat everything in the pot. Eventually the worms will begin eating each other, until just one large worm will remain. Next, burn this worm, but be cautious to stand at a distance due to the pungent odor. You will be left with the ashes which should be gathered and stored. Afterwards, take pure copper and melt it down, after which some of the powder should be added. You will now have gold.”      

Rabbi Hamawi leaves off with a cryptic line: “blessed is he who knows if these words are accurate”.

After publicizing this information Rabbi Epstein writes that he gives his blessing to anyone who chooses to step up and try this relatively “simple project” – to change copper into gold.



Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus, Parshah