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Four Stories: Talking Smack in Story Form

There’s a story behind every story

1st Story

While studying Talmud at morning seder (studytime) in Yeshivas Ner Yaakov in Jerusalem, my havruta (study partner) Yossi Bennett and I got stuck on a word. As we were wont to, we turned to Jastrow’s Talmudic dictionary for assistance. While I flipped through the pages searching for the term, my chavruta nonchalantly pointed out that Jastrow was a kofer (heretic). We both mused about the peculiarity that such an amazing tool could emanate from a heretic. “Nonetheless,” I stated, “this dictionary is still holy as it assists Yeshiva buchrim (students) in their studies, and includes much of our Torah shebe-al peh (Oral Law) in it.” He responded: “Rabbi Adler (our maggid shiur – teacher) told me that the dictionary is not holy and can be thrown on the ground.”

(fun fact: Orthodox Jews go out of their way to make sure that:

  1. no holy book ever falls to the ground
  2. no holy book is ever face-down on a table
  3. no secular book is ever placed upon a holy book
  4. no one ever sits on a table in which a holy book lies)

I found his statement very hard to swallow, so I responded: “OK, so throw it on the ground if you think it’s treif (not kosher),” knowing full well that Yossi would find the prospect uncomfortable. Looking towards Rabbi Adler for tacit approval – and gaining it with a nod – Yossi chucked the dictionary half way across the Bes medrash (study hall) and left it on the floor for the remaining hours of morning seder. Thank God, I had already found in the dictionary the word I was looking for.

2nd Story

I attended a Hareidi Yeshiva in Israel where Rav Elazar Shach was glorified as the greatest thing for Judaism since the Ten Commandments. But, he made one mistake. We were told many times that Rav Shach’s son went off the derech (became irreligious). Of course this was a hard fact to accept about such a gadol (great man). But, luckily, Rav Shach also provided the exact reason why this happened, so that we can easily avoid making such a grave mistake ourselves. At his Shabbos table, Rav Shach always had a book open and learned from it instead of singing zemiros (Shabbos songs) with his family. Had he taken the time out to sing at the Shabbos table with his son, then he could have been a Hareidi Rosh Yeshiva like his father. I found almost this exact story at . Whenever we were not fervent enough in singing Shabbos zemiros or nigunim (tunes) at Yeshiva, we would be reminded of R. Shach’s one great mistake.

3rd Story

While studying at the Yeshiva of Miami – Talmudic University – in Miami Beach, I also taught math at the Mechina (the Yeshiva’s High School). Often, between classes, I would engage in discussions with some of the student body. One such student happened to start making JB jokes. At first, I don’t think I knew what they meant. I had thought JB was the acronym for Jim Beam. And it is. But, when Yeshivish students use the phrase JB, they more often than not are referring to Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik – the late Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University – in a derogatory way. Once I realized the pupil was talking about Rabbi Soloveitchik in such a negative fashion, I confronted him and explained why it is was inappropriate. After receiving a less than gracious reply, I eventually reported the student to the principal. However, it was the principal, ironically, from who the student first heard this nickname. Apparently, that was the normal way for Rabbi Soloveitchik to be referred to in that High School. I imagine the punishment fit the crime.

4th Story

I’ve heard the following story told by my wife’s family (she is Rabbi Ruderman’s great grand-daughter) as well as by many others. It has recently appeared in a Mishpacha magazine article (with an excerpt and picture above) commemorating the 25th Yartzeit of the late Ner Yisroel Rosh Yeshiva and founder, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak Ruderman. He had studied at the Slobadka Yeshiva under the Alter of Slabodka (Rabbi Finkel).  Rabbi Finkel was worried that Rabbi Ruderman’s roommate would have a bad influence on him, so he invited Rabbi Ruderman to live with him in his own home. Somehow, everyone knows that the Yeshiva buchur that was going to negatively impact Rabbi Ruderman in some immeasurable way was none other than Professor Saul Lieberman. No one bothers mentioning, however, if the vacancy left by R. Ruderman’s abrupt exit was ever filled.

1st Story revisited

Rabbi Marcus Jastrow (1829-1903) is most famous for having written A Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud Babli, Talmud Yerushalmi and Midrashim Literature. He received his ordination from Rabbi Feilchenfeld and then also from Rabbi Landau. Additionally, he received his PhD from Halle and also was awarded an honorary one from Penn. He served in Germany, Poland and America as an Orthodox Rabbi. There are certain areas that he encountered controversy. For example, at certain times in his life, he had connections to the Reform Union of America, Jewish Publication Society (JPS) and the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). He spoke Polish from the pulpit in Poland, when it was uncommon for a rabbi to speak the vernacular from the pulpit. Also, the fact that he engaged in scholarly Talmud in and of itself is viewed pejoratively by the hareidi universe. Nonetheless, he was undoubtedly “Orthodox” throughout his life, and the idea that he could be or was ever a heretic is absolutely hogwash.

2nd Story revisited

This past year, Rav Shach’s only son Dr. Ephraim Shach (1929-2011) passed away. In his youth, he studied at the Hevron Yeshiva and then joined the Irgun. Eventually, he left the hareidi community and aligned himself with the Religious Zionist camp and even worked for the IDF. He studied at Yeshiva University and the U of Ottawa. For many years, he served as a supervisor for the Israel Ministry of Education in several municipalities. Dr. Shach was nothing but an Orthodox Jew until his last days.

3rd Story revisited

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) was the scion of the Brisker dynasty. He earned his PhD from Berlin and then settled in America. Arguably, he was the most important American Rabbi ever, and definitely the most important Modern Orthodox one. He was a paradigm for Yeshiva University’s Torah and Madda model.

4th Story revisited

The Gra”sh, Professor Saul Lieberman (1898-1983), taught at JTS for over forty years. His knowledge of Greek used throughout the Palestinian Talmud and Midrashim is unparalleled. His work on the Tosefta – Tosefta Kepshuta – is still the definitive work on the topic today. He was a self identified Orthodox Jew throughout his life, and even Rabbi Hutner of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn offered Lieberman a position at the Yeshiva.

All four of these distinguished individuals were Orthodox Jews. Yet, they were maligned for the simple reason that they did not fall into a normal hareidi rubric. Indeed, they all enjoyed specializations in areas frowned upon by the hareidi public at large. These stories (that I heard or experienced) do not exist in a vacuum. They all highlight the  “other.”


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32 Tanya

This is the 5th in a series about chussidut and modern day orthodoxy. For the others go here.

                Is there a difference between you and me? Other than the physical I mean. We surely posses different bones and organs and I hope you don’t have my blackened barely beating heart, but besides that, could we be the same? Could your pain be my pain and your joy be my cause to celebrate?  

                As a youth the notion of a single conscious troubled me because it was antithetical to what I felt. While there are those who claim to have experienced shared consciousness (there are often drugs involved), it just seems impossible. When a friend of mine didn’t do well enough on a test thereby costing us a football day (ahhh Jewish day school) I felt the true breath of injustice upon my neck. His failure should not have been my failure

                The Alter Rebbe, the first rebbe of Lubavitch, understood this problem and addressed it in the 32nd chapter of his magnum opus, Tanya. He claimed that we have a tendency to view the body as the primary vehicle for existence. Therefore, we feel separate from other Jews. My arm is objectively not your arm. However, the expanded conception of existence, which includes the soul, suggests a different reality. Most Jews accept that the soul is rooted in G-d. Therefore, my soul and your soul are just two different emanations of the same thing. Imagine a light. If you were to put a piece of cloth with four holes cut into it over the light there would be four rays, but really its all the same light.

                The Rebbe understands ואהבתב לרעך כמוך as demanding that we love our neighbor who IS us. Admittedly, this concept is difficult to grasp. I imagine that very few people manage to achieve a level this high and even then, it must be a struggle to maintain it. So lets distill all of this into its main, more understandable principle, empathy. The Alter Rebbe provides us with an intellectual meditation. Society does not exist merely to avoid anarchy as purveyors of social contract theory may argue. Instead, society is a singular organism. We help others because by doing so we are merely helping ourselves. If we hurt others then we are actually hurting ourselves. The more we look away from the physical nature of man and instead turn to his G-dly nature (including our own), the clearer this becomes.

                The connection between this post and the three weeks should be obvious. In the passages which discuss the imminent destruction of the land and temple, G-d and His prophets focus on relationships between men. While many passages focus on idol worship others suggest that G-d will allow for some avoda zara as long as the Jews are united (חֲבוּר עֲצַבִּים אֶפְרָיִם, הַנַּח-לוֹ). Lets take a moment to consider how we view our fellow humans, or to say it better, how we view ourselves.  


This will be my last post. It was fun. I may continue on my facebook page (Avi Bieler), but if not, I would still love to converse with you about this topic. See ya!

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When a Hareidi King Dies, Will the Modern Orthodox Weep?

Moses asks God to appoint a successor. At first glance, this is a surprising request.8 Every person that got this far in reading through the Pentateuch – all the way to the end of Numbers – would have automatically assumed that Moses’ right-hand man, Joshua, was destined to take over as Israelite leader. Was there a possibility that another would assume the top leadership role, or that the Israelites would not receive a successor at all? Nonetheless, leaving nothing to chance and cognizant of his own immanent demise, Moses now asks God for a successor. Apparently, Moses recognized that there is a world of difference between a post-mortem choice and a leader appointed during the reign of a leader. Indeed, there are several historical examples we can cite to support this distinction.

  1. Alexander the Great inherited a large kingdom from his father Philip II, and significantly expanded it. But after Alexander died in Babylon in 323 BCE with no clear successor, a revolt in Greece erupted as well as the War of the Diadochi (Successors) broke out lasting close to fifty years. These wars had a seriously negative impact upon the empire.
  2. Following the death of R. Moshe Teitlebaum (1914-2006), the Satmar Rebbi, in 2006, his 1st and 3rd sons vied for control of the dynastic family, with R. Aharon remaining in Kiryas Joel, New Jersey, and R. Zalman setting up shop in Williamsburg, NY. While six generations of Satmar Rebbis were able to keep the movement together (despite the occasional absence of an obvious male heir), today, they is a clear bifurcation that will not be remedied anytime soon, if ever. The same can be said for Rabbi Schneerson’s failing to designate a successor (putting aside the notion that there will only be seven Chabad rebbis), as well as the two separate heads and dormitories inside the Ponevezh Yeshiva.

Many of the issues experienced by these aforementioned examples are a direct consequent of a leadership vacuum. Had successors been chosen before the interregnum, much pain could have been avoided, and a smoother transition would have taken place. In the hareidi world, we might be closing in on a time with a similar leadership vacuum. Before he died, R. Elazar Shach (1899-2001) asked R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv to join him in his public leadership of Lithuanian hareidim and the Degel HaTorah Knesset party. This association concretized R. Elyashiv as R. Shach’s only true successor even though he was relatively unknown before then. But R. Shach’s stature established R. Elyashiv rise as Lithuanian Jewry’s next head in 2001 when R. Shach passed away. Paralleling the way that Hassidish rebbis are appointed, R. Shach’s decision was like the word of God in this matter. But today the situation is different, and we’re coming upon a very interesting juncture in hareidi world politics.

R. Elyashiv (age 102) lives in Jerusalem. While R. Shmuel Auerbach (80) also lives there and is a close ally of the aging rabbi, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, R. Elyashiv has not selected a successor for the 700,000 strong Lithuanian Hareidim residing in Israel today. As most of the other great Lithuanian Rabbis live in Bnei Brak (R. Aharon Leib Shteinman (98), R. Nissim Karelitz (85), R. Chaim Kanievsky (83)), these rabbis can make a strong case to their followers that Lithuanian Jewry’s center should move from Jerusalem to Bnei Brak. This is not just a question of geography but of sensibilities. While it might seem trivial or miniscule to outsiders, there are tremendous differences between the two cities and their approaches to their Hareidi throngs, politics, polemics and hareidi professions. Yair Ettinger wrote a phenomenal article on this topic1 asking whether Jerusalem and Bnei Brak will separate into two hareidi sub-sects, much as has happened by both Satmar Hassidim and the Punevezh Yeshiva.

While most Orthodox people outside of hareidi circles might look askance at the notion that these Israeli hareidi oriented issues impact our own day to day issues, let me offer two examples of the overflow from their internal debates into our own world.

  1. Virtually all poskim (halakhic deciders) ruled that it is permissible to make sheitels (female wigs) from tonsured Indian hair (that was cut off outside of a Hindu Temple) when the matter was first ruled upon.2 When the matter was revisited fifteen years later, with R. Elyashiv leading the way, many poskim forbid the usage of such hair, as the hair was now deemed to be tiqrovet avodah zara (something associated with or used for idolatry).3 This change in law led to mass burnings of sheitels in both Israel and America.4
  2. Several years ago, I attended a one-week intensive course in Kashrut supervised and administered by the Star-K in Baltimore under R. Heinemann. That year, a massive brouhaha took place between virtually all poskim and Rabbi Heinemann. He ruled that it is permissible to press the temperature keys on a Sabbath mode oven, on Yom Tov, in order to lower or raise the temperature.5 For some reason, ten years after this Sabbath mode type of oven hit the markets, virtually all top poskim ruled that it is forbidden to press these buttons on Yom Tov. R. Heinemann stood his ground and refused to change his position, despite the fiery competition. Indeed, he told our group in Baltimore that on his recent trip to Israel, he even made an appointment to meet with R. Elyashiv to discuss the issue. But, right before he was to enter, R. Elyashiv’s lackies made R. Heinemann promise that he would not discuss anything to do with the Sabbath mode oven issues with R. Elyashiv. Reluctantly, R. Heinemann agreed. I remember visiting Baltimore in the aftermath of this controversy, only to witness the anxiety and confusion experienced by the whole Jewish community. Should they follow R. Heinemann, their local posek, or are they duty bound to follow the Gadol ha-Dor: R. Elyashiv? No one knew the answer.

These two examples highlight the importance and impact that the hareidi community (and specifically their leadership) in Israel can have on their American counterparts. Who is picked or not picked to lead can and will impact us.

So, how should we feel about these appointments? When Moses asks for a successor, he refers to God as Elokei Ruhot (God of spirits). Rashi explains that Moses wanted a successor that had the ability to relate to each person as an individual, much in the same way that God is able to do so.

But, why did Moshe wait until the end of Numbers to request a successor? Rashi explains that after he had adjudicated the case involving Tzelaphchad’s daughters’ inheritance, he then thought about his own legacy, and that which his children would inherit. He deemed it appropriate that his son(s) should inherit his leadership role. These two points – that he asked God for a successor that would treat everyone like an individual and, also, that he asked for his son to take over the helm of the Israelites, is most likely a contradiction. Only a father could think that his son, out of all the other Israelite possibilities, could best fit this picture, if that what Moses was thinking. But this is not surprising. Even Moses lacked objectivity in picking a successor.

A prime example of a successful succession that was in danger of failing can be found in the first chapter of I Kings (1:5-53). Adoniyahu – the brother of Avshalom – attempted to establish himself as King David’s successor even before David died. He found a priestly endorsement (Abiatar) and was supported by General Joab. He brought offerings, made a kingly meal, as well as established chariots and riders for himself. Obviously, this deeply troubled Solomon’s mother Batsheva, as well as the Prophet Nathan. When they confronted King David about Adoniyahu, David reasserted his oath to Batsheva that Solomon would succeed him as king. Adoniyahu was surprised that Solomon was appointed king when he already boasted of holding the position. Nonetheless, Adoniyahu knew that once David officially chose a successor, along with the prophet Natan’s stamp of approval, he would not be able to contradict it. Indeed, both Joshua and Solomon enjoyed a prophetic stamp of approval upon their appointments.

But, in a world without prophetic appointments, we should advocate a meritocracy. We ought never appoint a successor without the approval of the masses which that leader plans to assert power over, or some formal appointment process. Only through a decentralized Jewish establishment that focuses on individual autonomy can the will of the people be adequately represented. When one looks at the Talmud’s idea of Sanhedrins (courts), it is clear that each court was intended to have a certain measure of autonomy. Accordingly, the best thing for world Jewry would be for Jerusalem and Bnei Brak to become two weakened hubs of halakha for hareidim. Hence, we should all thank R. Elyashiv for not appointing a successor. While some people would be inclined to say that we ought to simply ignore those rulings and influence that emanate from the Israeli hareidi community, we must remember, it is impossible to ignore other sects of Jews as we live in an ever increasing global network.

To conclude, I would like to tell a story that happened to me. As the chaplain for Yorkshire, one of my campuses is the University of York. So, when I heard that the Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks will be speaking at York St. John University, I phoned his office asking if he could spare the time to meet with the York Jewish Society before his speech that day. During that meeting, the Chief Rabbi gave each student a chance to ask a question. I also took the opportunity to make an observation. I had pointed out that several months earlier I had planned on organizing a HODS6 organ donation card drive, but had cancelled it when the Chief Rabbi publicly sided with those who oppose donating organs even after brain-stem death.7 As the Chief Rabbi is Chaplaincy’s patron, I thought it ill-advised to go against one of the Chief Rabbi’s public stances. More to vent than to question, I made the Chief Rabbi aware of what happened, at which point he waved his hands and said: “Oh, don’t listen to me!”

One of the greatest aspects of our religion today is the absence of compulsion and the freedom of individual expression; these are ideals that we must treat as sacred and endeavor to safeguard. The Chief Rabbi understands that; I hope we do as well.


8The Torah (Numbers 27:16) says: Va-yedaber Moshe el Hashem leimor.” (Moses said to God.) This is a very uncommon verse. We encounter the phrase “God said to Mose:” literally hundreds of the times throughout the Pentateuch. And, while the Torah records conversations, petitions, prayers, etc. between Moses and God, never are they introduced with the word ‘leimor‘ like it is here. There is no accurate translation for the word ‘leimor‘ in English, even though most English translations of the Pentateuch supply one. Really ‘leimor‘ introduces quotation marks, connoting that the subsequent words are verbatim what the speaker said. Rashi, noting the   peculiarity of the Torah citing Moses’ exact words,  questions the employment of the word ‘leimor,‘ and hence translates ‘leimor‘ as introducing a question (something it never does elsewhere). In other words, according to Rashi, the verse should be translated as Moses said to God asking.” For some reason, the Torah deemed it necessary to cite verbatim exactly what Moses asked God for.


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Andy Murray and Moshe Rabbeinu

Due to a case of massive writers block I’m going to switch gears and write about sports. Have no fears though! I will not abandon the ways of our fathers. G-d always makes Wimbledon tie into the parsha.

                Before I show you the clip let me set the stage. Tennis player Andy Murray is England sports’ greatest hope for redemption due to their soccer team’s utter incompetence. The fact that he’s Scottish does not seem to deter the English fans in the least. Mr. Murray finds himself ranked 4th in the world, something that usually indicates a forthcoming major championship. The only problem is that the three people ranked ahead of him may one day be considered three of the five greatest players ever. One of those players is Roger Federer a.k.a the consensus greatest tennis player of all time. From 2003-2008 he proved to be unbeatable when it counted most. He’s courteous, charitable and his wife looks like British pop sensation Adele! Before last week Fed had beaten Murray twice in major championships. Murray and Federer played again last week, this time for the most coveted championship in tennis, Wimbledon. This was by far Murray’s best chance to win the tourney, due to Federer’s age. The fans in England so badly wanted this for Murray and for themselves.

                Now watch this. As you may have gathered from the previous paragraph, Murray lost. He didn’t just lose though; he played amazing, beautiful tennis and didn’t ever really come close to winning. After the match, he gathered himself enough to give that gracious 2nd place acceptance speech. I saw something more though. I saw a man who realized that no matter what he did, he would never win the big one. He has worked his whole life for an achievement that will never come.

                This week’s parsha provides us with the original Greek tragedy. Every year we read the same story of Moshe that starts so full of hope and every year we reach this point. G-d tells Moshe that despite his hard work, the best he can do is to look at the mountain. This frequently brings to my mind other great men who never saw the fruits of their labor. Famously, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. quoted this story a few days before he was tragically taken from us. Moshe’s plight stands out more than the other leaders though. He took the job completely unwillingly. He then worked extremely hard to lead a people who frankly did not want to be led. Even G-d seemed to quit on them. However, Moshe stuck with it and despite his mistakes, he deserved at least a moment in Kena’an. Every year, that moment never comes.

                The torah does not describe Moshe’s reaction to the decision, but it does later record his entreaties to enter the land. No doubt, Moshe wept much like Murray and like Murray, it made no difference. Sometimes G-d’s decrees are like championships, they cannot be taken away.

                On the same day as the Wimbledon finals the mourning period of the 3 weeks began. These culminate in the difficult day of the 9th of Av and the kinnot we read then. Some of these kinnot directly address Zion (I believe that most are attributed to R. Yehuda HaLevi). It’s clear that the author would give anything for just one day in Israel. Many Jews since the time of the 2nd temple have dreamt of an opportunity to spend just a little time here. Despite their cries that day would never come. Yet here we are today. I am currently writing this secret love letter to Andy Murray a mere 35 minute walk away from Har Habayit (תובב”א).  This year, in addition to mourning the loss of two temples, let us make sure to appreciate the opportunities that this age grants us. Some people would kill for just one moment at the top.

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Ode to the Technocrat

This is the 4th post in a series discussing what modern day Orthodox people may learn from chussidut. To see the others go here.

Let’s all stop for a moment. Take a deep breath. Stare deep into our souls and admit the truth. Many disciplines still escape our knowledge. The facts are indisputable. The wiring snaking behind our walls baffles us, as do the inner workings of the 2012 Lamborghini Aventador LP700-4.

Few of us would claim possession of technical knowledge that we lack. It’s simply too easy to be proven wrong. Either you can change the electrical outlet or you can’t (I can!). Unfortunately, non-technical knowledge lacks the same clear verification test leading to the effusion of thoughts and opinions from those who may not qualify to effuse.

The recent American Supreme Court decisions provide a great example. It seems that everyone became a constitutional scholar in the course of a few months. Stop for a moment though, breathe and forget all of your political positions…how many hours of your life have you spent studying con law? Have you read the proposed statutes that were brought to court? How about the opinion and the dissent of the court? These are all questions that should guide us in deciding about whether we should form a strong opinion about the cases.

This of course relates directly back to chussidus, modernity and protestant Christianity. When Martin Luther nailed his theses through the heart of the church, he didn’t just create a new religious paradigm, years of war and cool new flags. He also shot the first arrow in an ongoing war against authority. Luther’s actions brought power to his people and all cultures that came into contact with Protestant Christianity.

Overall, this is fantastic. G-d bless Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic brain. He enhanced Judaism by encouraging conversation regarding ritual and theology amongst the littles. The torah limits the power of the priesthood and the Levites for a reason. The conception of a tzaddik (someone with the ability to answer all questions regarding halacha, business and general life) that some (not all) chussidic courts promote is disturbing. Furthermore, educated people will be influenced by factors outside of their education when formulating their thoughts. However, no matter how self-empowered we’ve become, education must remain a prerequisite to opinion.

Periodically, I hear friends (left, right and center) passionately advocate halachic stances that they’ve spent very little time studying, frequently disparaging a rabbi or a movement in the process. While rabbis ripping rabbis is a time honored tradition (Raavad-Rambam, Ramban-IbnEzra etc.), they at least come from a point of knowledge. Nowadays, it seems that everyone feels comfortable attacking everything regardless of their own stature.

Perhaps we can look to the less enlightened world for a lesson in humility. I am not advocating belief in the redemptive power of the Tzaddik. Nor do I put much faith in the influence of genealogy (just look at me), but we should periodically think about the many hours that experts from different persuasions from our own have spent in the beit midrash honing their craft. That alone should be enough to speak with and about them with a certain amount of respect. In our quest for independent thought, we must not cast aside the value of education. If one person spent 3 years studying a topic and the other 3 hours we should factor that into our though. This is not to say that quantity of education equals quality of thought. Don’t drop everything and follow anyone with more schooling than you, but before you write that angry blog post, take a deep breath and think.

Biz vayter tzeit, kapn a glaz un zingan a niggun

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To Kippah or Not to Kippah: a Temple Mount Love Story

Joseph Hyman is a second year engineering student from London, studying at the University of Leeds in England. Over the summer, aside from studying at Yeshiva, he signed up to attend UJS’s (Union of Jewish Students) Manhigut (Leadership) trip, running from June 13-22. On this trip, UK students tour throughout Israel meeting politicians, activists, etc. across the political spectrum, while also visiting Israeli sites of interest.

One of the sites that the tour visited was the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City. Along with most of the Manhigut participants and a tour guide, Joseph passed through Israeli security to enter the Rambam (Mughrabi) bridge (that connects the Temple Mount complex with the Kotel complex). Upon entering the Temple Mount complex, the group was met with four walkie-talkie wielding Wakf officials, two of which engaged the group. They explained that the Temple Mount is a holy site and that the group as a whole – many of whom were wearing shorts – were dressed inappropriately for such a holy site.

They ordered those with exposed legs to buy kefiahs (scarves) for thirteen shekalim in order to cover up. Subsequently, the two Wakf members turned their attention to Joseph, the only member of the group with an exposed kippah. They said: “Asur! (forbidden) Holy Place. Not this!” (while pointing to his kippah) repeatedly. The tour guide attempted to negotiate with the two Wakf offficials, but to no avail. They would not allow Joseph to enter the Temple Mount complex unless he voluntarily removed his kippah.

Instead of removing his kippah, Joseph chose to leave the group, and the Temple Mount complex. Most members of the Manhigut group felt terrible for Joseph. Nonetheless, they chose to remain on the Temple Mount for their tour, while he waited in the Old City Arab market for the group to finish their tour of the holiest site in Judaism.

In fact, Joseph’s experience is not an isolated case. Recently, religious freedom has been seriously curtailed on the Temple Mount. Ma’ariv (a daily Israeli newspaper) has reported that “non-Muslims are now not even permitted to close their eyes while on the Mount, or do anything that could be interpreted as praying” on the Temple Mount. When a Jewish group enters the complex as an identifiable Jewish group, a Wakf offical shadows the group (along with a Jerusalem police officer) to ensure that no one prays or does any overtly religious actions (like the Kohanic blessing, recite Psalms, or prostrations).

When I discuss this issue with most people, they do not know how to feel. Are the Wakf officials permitted to restrict access to the Temple Mount based on attire or creed? Should Joseph simply have bowed to the Wakf official’s whim and removed his kippah? Should Joseph have been there in the first place as the Israeli Chief Rabbinate informs Jews that it is forbidden to enter the site?

Instead of preaching, or explaining the different opinions about entering the Temple Mount complex and where it is permissible to walk, or explaining the Wakf’s duties, I want to focus upon Israeli law and the responsibilities that Israel has taken upon itself. Let us start in in the beginning.

In Israel’s Declaration of Independence it states:

It will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture. It will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions.

One can maintain that these two promises of the Declaration actually contradict one another, for, especially in our own turbulent world, it might be that the only way in which Israel can “safeguard” holy sites of all religions is to limit and not guarantee freedom of religion in those said sites. In fact, this exactly is Israel’s policy. By limiting access and religious freedoms throughout many holy sites in Israel, the government ensures the safety of its populations and minimizes actions that can be viewed as incitement by other religions. All civilized societies accept the principle that many of our liberties have to be curtailed in order to safeguard the welfare of the society as a whole. But is this what happened at the Temple Mount complex? For us to understand the core issues, we have to first turn to the Six Day War.

In 1967, amidst intense fighting, Israel liberated the Temple Mount from the Jordanians. Between 1948 and 1967, when Jordan controlled the whole West Bank, Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs were forbidden from ascending the Temple Mount. After its capture, Moshe Dayan – who oversaw the capture of East Jerusalem on June 5th through 7th – decided to leave administrative control of the Temple Mount with the Islamic Wakf. There were several political factors that led to this decision, but the key issue, in my view, was his own personality. As a secular and usually anti-religious Israeli, he did not deem the Temple Mount a religiously significant site; it was simply a historical site, like Masada or the ruins of Beit She’an to him. Accordingly, he did not care for the significance that the IDF’s rabbinic head and eventual Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, placed upon the Mount, nor the significance that most Jews attached to it.

On this point, we can simply say: DAYAN WAS WRONG! Obviously. He was unjustified. And according to Israel’s Declaration of Independence and the Preservation of the Holy Places Law of 19671, it was probably illegal to allow the Wakf to remain the administrators of the Temple Mount after its liberation. And, it was definitely illegal once Israel annexed all of East Jerusalem with the passing of the Jerusalem Law in 1980. Israel then had an obligation to grant full freedom of religion on the Temple Mount, as the Old City then become Israeli territory. That would mean either ensuring that the Wakf grants religious freedom to all (arguably, an impossibility), or taking administrative control from the Wakf and handing it to a more competent body (whoever that may be).

Many members of Knesset (Israel’s Parliament) have taken a similar stance. To name a few: Likud MK (Member of Knesset) Tzipi Hotovely has vehemently pushed for the Interior Ministry committee to discuss this very issue. She has said regarding the Wakf’s treatment of Jews on the Temple Mount that “this is a fatal blow to freedom of worship, and has no place in the state of Israel.” Upon his visit to the Temple Mount, MK National Union Uri Ariel recounted: “The officer said that closing eyes and rocking the body back and forth constitute prayer, and therefore anyone who does any of these things will be immediately removed from the Mount.” He has similarly pushed for a change in the status quo. MK National Union Aryeh Eldad has called bluntly for the end of Wakf control over visits to the Temple Mount. Also MK Likud Danny Danon, a deputy parliament speaker, said that “… it is more difficult for the Jew than the Muslim to go and pray on the Temple Mount. This is a distortion that must be corrected… If Jews want to go and pray on the Temple Mount then they should be allowed to do it.”2

For those who recognize the names of the aforementioned Israeli politicians, they will note that all four of the MKs are right-wingers. Sadly, this issue has become not one of religious freedom, but an expression of right vs left wing politics. All peoples in Israel: left, right, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc., ought to push for religious freedom upon the Temple Mount. But this must be accomplished without starting an intifada. Israeli police (along with the Wakf in this one instance) ought to work together to ensure that all peoples are able to practice their religion freely at the Temple Mount, the Kotel, the cave of the Patriarchs or anywhere in Israel. It is the (sometimes sad) reality of two peoples that certain geographical sites are regarded as holy to both of them. For them to live together, religious freedom must be extended to both parties. There will always be a tension and compromises are necessary, but for Israel to disregard its own laws on religious freedom is nothing short of a travesty.

Things you can do:

  1. visit the Temple Mount
  2. encourage others to visit the Temple Mount
  3. write to MKs, regardless of their faction, explaining how it is their job to ensure religious freedom throughout Israel, and especially at the Temple Mount
  4. educate others of the importance that the Temple Mount plays within Jewish law and the religion, and the ongoing issues present there today
  5. contact your local imams and/or moderate Muslim representatives to help push for religious freedom on the Temple Mount amongst their communities and religious groups
  6. pass this article on to your friends

And if we’re effective, Joseph may yet be able to visit the Temple Mount for the first time, and wear his kippah there with pride.

Articles (in alphabetic order) that detail Joseph’s experience

Arutz Sheva:

Daily Beast

Jerusalem Post:

Jihad Watch:


1. This is the Preservation of the Holy Places Law that the Knesset, headed by Levi Eshkol, passed in 1967. The law states:

  1. The Holy Places shall be protected from desecration and any other violation and from anything likely to violate the freedom of access of the members of the different religions to the places sacred to them or their feelings with regard to those places.
    1. Whosoever desecrates or otherwise violates a Holy Place shall be liable to imprisonment for a term of seven years.
    2. Whosoever does anything likely to violate the freedom of access of the members of the different religions to the places sacred to them or their feelings with regard to those places shall be liable to imprisonment for a term of five years.
  2. This Law shall add to, and not derogate from, any other law.
  3. The Minister of Religious Affairs is charged with the implementation of this Law, and he may, after consultation with, or upon the proposal of, representatives of the religions concerned and with the consent of the Minister of Justice make regulations as to any matter relating to such implementation.
  4. This Law shall come into force on the date of its adoption by the Knesset.


Filed under Miscellaneous, Uncategorized

Academic Reading vs. Traditional Reading

by Avi Kallenbach

I have sat in many Jewish classes in university and am witness to an interesting phenomenon.

Some people sign up for Jewish classes expecting something akin to what they learned in Yeshiva or Seminary. The class is after all titled “Talmud” or “Rambam”. These people have learned Talmud and Rambam in Yeshiva and Seminary and are hoping to learn something like that here. Alas, these poor people are often disappointed with the content of these Jewish classes and I know this because they often make their disappointment rather vocal over the course of the year. These people have made an understandable genre mistake. They were expecting the traditional study of Jewish sources. However most universities engage in a somewhat different method of text study – the academic study of Jewish texts. 

I would like to explain briefly (in this post and others to follow) what these two types of study are. What defines their different methodologies? How are they different and how are they the same? And perhaps, at some point, I can address the difficult question of whether these two methodologies have what to teach each other and can they be reconciled?

For starters let’s discuss something called charity of text. Academic study assumes that texts mean what they say. This means that when the Gemara says that semen comes from the brain it actually means that semen comes from the brain. When a kabbalistic text says that there are ten sefirot there are actually ten sefirot. This is literalism. An academic reading read texts literally and unless s/he has a good reason to think otherwise s/he doesn’t assume that the text does not mean what it says. No, the academic reads the words in front of him and reads them as they are with no embellishment and no additions.

However the traditional study of a text often does not share this assumption. It assumes that texts do not necessarily mean what they. At times texts are meant to be decoded and a deeper meaning lies underneath the surface. Literalism, simply scratches the surface without touching the deeper meaning of the text and thus misses the point or worse completely misunderstands what is going on. Dig deeper.

But enough abstract theory, let’s apply it:

Rabbi Slikfin a while back wrote about Chazal’s view about the sun and the moon: In his article he brings the Gemara:

The Sages of Israel say, During the day, the sun travels below the firmament, and at night, above the firmament. And the scholars of the nations say, During the day the sun travels below the firmament, and at night below the ground. Rebbi said: Their words seem more correct than ours, for during the day the wellsprings are cool and at night they steam.

His article proceeds to examine the different views about these statements.

Now according to what we have said above there are two ways we can read this Gemara. We can either read the words in front of us OR we can look for a deeper meaning in the text something beyond what the words actually say. The former approach will be academic the latter traditional.

The words say: that the sages believe that the sun is hidden by the firmanent in the day and that is what causes night. The nations of the world on the other hand say that the sun is hidden underground and THAT is what causes night. Rebbi agrees with the nations of the world because it would provide an explanation for why wells hot at night. The sun goes under the ground and heats up the wells. Slifkin prefers here to take the academic approach and chooses to read the words as they are and thus concludes that the Rabbis believed in a different picture of astronomy than we do.

Those are what the words say. However a traditional approach will dig deeper than that and avoid the simplicity of the words. Thus the explanation of the Maharal of Prague (also mentioned in Slifkin’s article) that this picture represents a spiritual description rather than a physical description of the world. The words themselves give us no reason to think that we are talking about a spiritual description, and the Maharal’s explanation is adding to the simplicity of the words. This is the traditional approach. That sees the words as somewhat esoteric and that they need to be “cracked” or “explained” in order to understand the true meaning.

There are countless other examples of these two approaches especially in the field of Talmud. Needless to say many “traditional” scholars use a somewhat academic approach and many academic scholars at times use what i’ve called the traditional approach. These two categories of thinking are in no ways absolute.

BUT these models help us understand why the Yeshiva guy sitting in my Talmud class seems so confused. Someone is explaining a Talmudic text to him academically and he can’t understand why this professor is being so stupid and not looking for the deeper hidden meaning of the words. What he perhaps does not realize is that the professor is using an entirely different methodology, something the Yeshiva guy is not used to and therefore the professor reaches drastically different conclusions about the text.


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