The Myth of Israel’s ‘Secular’ Jew

This Times of Israel piece by Dov Lipman (The era of ‘Secular’ Israeli Jews is over)  echoes what I have been saying for years now and reminds me of a conversation I recently had with an Israeli who called himself secular as he was describing the bar mitzvah he & his wife are planning for his son.

The truth hit me right before my first Yom Kippur in Israel after I made aliyah, when I visited Kibbutz Beit Hashita, and is expressed in another Times of Israel article by Matti Friedman  from 2012 which can be found here:  and was reinforced by many interviews and personal encounters with Israelis who Jewish identity is expressed in both traditional forms (daf yomi other text study) and non-traditional variations on Shabbat and holiday observance – including skating and biking on the city streets on Yom Kippur, when the roads are closed to  all traffic save for pedestrians, bicycles, scooters and skateboards.

Lets spend more time on what keeps us together than on what separates us from each other.



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Another Example of Halakhic Evoution in Action

Back in 1990, one of my students whose mother was a Reform rabbi, asked me if I ever thought there would be Orthodox woman rabbis.  I answered it would probably happen in about 25 years.

In the spirit of the high holidays I publicly apologize to that student for being off by about 1 year.

One of the articles that motivated me to make that prediction was Rabbi Saul Berman’s  ‘Status of Women in Halakhic Judaism’  published in 1973.

Now, ,someone just sent me a link to an article on his Nov., 2014 update to his original article from Jewish Link of NJ.  You can hear it here at YU Torah Online

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How’m I doin’? Modern Orthodoxy wants to know

“The patient is hemorrhaging. In fact, the patient does not seem to even know who he is. It sounds pretty dire.” Avrohom Gordimer gives his diagnosis of Modern Orthodoxy in the age of Open Orthodoxy and Neo Chassidus.  Read the full article in CROSS CURRENTS

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TORAH — Our First Transformative Sefer

(First in a series of essays on 12 SEFARIM THAT TRANSFORMED JUDAISM.
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With all its anomalies and disjointed structure (the fact that it goes from historic narrative to legal lists and back again)  and the seeming disconnect between the beginning of the text and the rest (see the Rashi on the first verse) ultimately we realize the point of the Torah was to provide a moral, ethical religious core around which the Jewish nation, descended from Avraham who rediscovered God, would be formed.


The Torah is based on the core principal of balance. ‘Measure for measure’ – midah keneged midah’ is the Torah’s driving force.  People are punished or rewarded in accordance with their actions.  Avraham, who follows God’s instructions, is promised the land of Canaan.  Yitzhak & Rivkah who pray for a child are rewarded with twins, one whom Yitzhak favors and one whom Rivkah favors.  Rachel, who says not having any sons is killing her, bears Yosef, and dies in childbirth when her second son, Binyamin, is born. God punishes the Egyptians for enslaving the Hebrew and punishes the Hebrews when they test Him. Of course, the biggest irony of the Torah narrative is that Moshe whose relationship with God is higher than any human can achieve is barred from entering Canaan because of an act he committed, while everyone else who survived the desert can enter.  But the balance is still kept.  He could pray on behalf of everyone else, but not on his own behalf.  (And nobody, it seems, prayed for him either. )

All mitzvot have an aspect of balance attached to them.  Moreover, there is even a balance between mitzvot that relate to God and mitzvot that relate to other people (not necessarily in number).  The shared history and values are what unites us as a people with a common interest and destiny, so that when Yehoshua needs to send out spies, he doesn’t have to send 12 – one from each tribe – but 2 to  represent the whole nation.  This is essentially what the Torah’s transformative task is – to bring us all together.  Despite its anomalies (or perhaps because of them) it is our core book.  We read it. We study it.  We argue it.  Sometimes we run to touch it.  Sometimes we run from it.  But it’s always our center, informing each and all of us.

Midrash tells us that before He revealed Himself at Sinai to give His Torah to Yisrael’s children,God shopped around just to see if someone else might want it.  Every nation to whom He offered it rejected it for one reason or another after asking what’s in it.  Yisrael’s children not only accepted it, but accepted it without question (‘Na’aseh venishma’ – we will do and then we will listen).  I suggest, on the one hand, they were so desperate they were ready to accept anything.  But I also believe the inner truth of the Midrash is even more revealing.. Consider how other religions relate to the Torah. (See, for example, Christian &Islamic takes on ‘Eye for an eye’).  Other beliefs refer to the Torah, but adapt it to their cultures.  The Jewish people allowed themselves to be transformed by it.

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12 Sefarim That Transformed Judaism

12booksCome join us at the Fuchsberg Center, 8 Agron St., Jerusalem, Wed. mornings at 9AM for ’12 Sefarim That Transformed Judaism’. Each week promises a lively session with lots of surprises.

Tomorrow (Sept 9th): The Torah — What’s it all about?

And if you can’t make it, you can still join us online.  Like our Facebook page at

For more info, e-mail me at





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Profile of an Extraordinary Scholar

A brief biography of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein by Elli Fischer in MOSAIC


Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, this year’s recipients of the Israel Prize,

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Consider the Cat

Image“Among my people it is believed – and rightly so – that it is only mindless superstitions and pointless rituals that separate us from the animals.” – Latka Gravas

Rabbi Yochanan said: Had the Torah not been given, we would have learned modesty from the cat, [aversion to] theft from the ant, chastity from the dove, and [conjugal] manners from fowl. (Bavli Eruvin, 100b)

First of all, I want to thank everyone who came to our amazing class last Wednesday.  You peppered me relentlessly from start to finish and didn’t let up.  It was one of the most stimulating mornings I’ve had. 

Now, just to clarify things, I was not presenting the Sefer Hahinukh as the definitive answer to why we observe what we observe  the way we observe. I was presenting him as an author in search of a reason to continue to observe to give the people in his generation (and of generations after) hope in a time when they may be tempted to abandon their faith for a more ‘successful’ one.  Throughout history, we have seen works like this, especially when Jews were feeling oppression.  Most recently, when other beliefs and philosophies and ‘movements’ seemed to dominate the horizon, – such as meditation, psychology, vegetarianism, new-age-ism, Zionism – Jewish authors were quick with their apologetics or fusion-literature to show how these ‘non-Jewish’ ideas fit neatly into mainstream Jewish belief.   The author of the Sefer Hahinukh (which  means the book of education), is just one in a long line of authors starting with Philo & Josephus and leading up to our time.  He is, in many ways, a good example of how Torah shebe’al peh evolved.

Of course, we may end up at the point made famous by Latka Gravis, a character from a foreign (unidentified) country, created by Andy Kaufman for the TV show Taxi.  When questioned about his country’s really bizarre wedding rituals which seemed to be filled with meaningless,  superstitious practices he said: “Among my people it is believed – and rightly so – that it is only mindless superstitions and pointless rituals that separate us from the animals.”  Sometimes it seems as if Judaism is such a religion.  I’d like to believe that the system is more rational, but It really is hard to justify certain practices and beliefs (eg, yayin nesech, shatnes, grafting, kashrut).  But maybe if we step back from the minutiae of ritual we can discover something else – a meta-message underlying it all. 

In some way, it’s similar to Talmud study, where the conclusion is not as important as the process of getting there. 

As I was driving home after our class on Wednesday, I realized that we were all saying the same thing about Rabbi Yohanan’s observation in the Talmud (see above).  Nature is amoral.  What we see in nature is more a reflection of ourselves than what it really is.  Romans saw the eagle as a symbol of power and dominance.  We praise the eagle for its protectiveness.   God is a ‘man of war’ when Moses and the people sing of Him at the Red Sea, but He is also ‘kind and merciful’ when Moses prays to Him after the golden calf.  

Mitzvot are the same.  The reason for observance is not inherent in the mitzvah.  Observance, itself, is the rationale for observance.  (Think how many of us eat better in general because kashrut demands careful inspection of a product’s ingredients).

There is such a thing a ‘naval b’reshut haTorah’, that is, behaving in a disgusting manner within the limits of the Torah.   But such practice is frowned upon as being out of step with what the Torah demands of us.  Ultimately, the values we imprint upon our religious beliefs and how they come through in our practice and observance define the meaning of what we do and how we express our ourselves as Jewish.  

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