The Orthodox Family of the 21st Century: A Symposium

Jewish Action: The Magazine of the Orthodox Union (USA)

Spring 2012

My contribution follows; full article here

While statistics are not available, it seems that there is a dramatic increase in divorce in the Orthodox community, particularly among young people. Why do you think this is so? What can be done?

Rabbi Dr. Harvey Belovski

It is easy to blame the zeitgeist for the growing divorce problem. We inhabit a responsibility-adverse, “throw-away” society, one which discourages people from dedicating themselves to long-term relationships and from remaining committed to them when problems arise. And while increased acceptance of divorce has its positive sides, it also deters couples from working on their marriages when the going gets tough. Combined with a predominantly casual attitude toward sexuality and palpable scorn for stable, “boring” monogamy, contemporary society offers a toxic milieu within which it is challenging to maintain even robust marriages.

Yet over-focusing on the influence of secular mores prevents us from identifying and addressing causes of marital discord that originate from within the Orthodox world.

There are positive aspects of the “shidduch system,” yet its misuses contribute to poor relationships and early breakups. Unfortunately, some parents seem to view a shidduch not only as an attempt to find a lasting, happy match for their offspring, but also as an opportunity for social and economic advancement. Often in collusion with their children, they judge a potential mate based on genealogical, financial and even sartorial or other superficial criteria, instead of focusing on core qualities such as stability, personal happiness, commitment-capability, honesty and character refinement. While of course everyone pays lip-service to the importance of these qualities, in reality they are commonly overlooked in favor of a “good catch”—a shidduch that meets the approval of their peers. The solution is obvious, but hard to implement as it involves a paradigm shift at a number of levels. Educating our young people about real relationships would be a good start.

Furthermore, many couples date too few times prior to getting engaged. Most people cannot make a competent decision about whether they wish to share every aspect of their lives with a prospective spouse without spending extended periods together in a variety of settings. People and their lives are complex; “unpacking” them takes time and cannot be rushed. Yet social expectations and pressure from parents or shadchanim may drive a young couple to decide quickly, frequently leaving a whole raft of issues undiscussed, personality traits unexplored and behavior-patterns undiscovered—all “time-bombs” that can, and sadly often do, detonate later on and destroy the marriage. And while I understand the genuine religious and other concerns that motivate the desire to “get it over with quickly,” they must be resisted if we are to prevent many quite unnecessary breakdowns and their attendant long-term misery.

And speaking of potential “time-bombs,” numerous young people plunge into marriage despite unresolved emotional, sexual, familial and religious hang-ups. Some are cognizant of these issues but date anyway because of social pressures. Others imagine that marriage will solve their problems; yet others are blissfully unaware of them even though they may be painfully evident to others. This is a recipe for disaster, since inevitably these issues will surface and destructively affect the marriage. And even if the union survives, it is certain to be rocky and challenging. Again, the solution is obvious: sort out your problems before getting married and remember that while singlehood can be painful, being trapped in a bad marriage is always worse. Marriage never solves these problems. Yet the stigma associated with mental health and other personal problems and the pressure felt by parents to get their children “married off” young often prevail.

Other causes of divorce not confined to the Orthodox community yet prevalent within it include: poor communication; lack of those who “role-model” functional, happy relationships; unwelcome family pressure to conform or perform; absurd expectations in terms of personal happiness and finances. The latter is especially acute in those parts of the community where couples expect to marry young, have large families, live in an expensive middle-class neighborhood and pay crippling tuitions, yet remain students well beyond marriage with often weak earning-potential. These pressures can destroy even the healthiest relationships.

Rabbi Dr. Harvey Belovski is the rabbi of the Golders Green Synagogue in London. He earned a PhD from the University of London on the topic of Chassidic hermeneutics, and is the author of several books.

To hear an interview with Rabbi Belovski, please visit Savitsky Talks at http://www.ou.org/life/relationships/dating/why-are-more-orthodox-couples-getting-divorced/. Savitsky Talks is a weekly twenty-minute audio program exploring topics in Jewish Action and other topics in contemporary Jewish life.

Sermon Notes 25/02/12 - Terumah

Celebrating Volunteering in our Community

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

This Shabbat we celebrate the immense contribution of our volunteers.  No community can function without those who give so generously of their time and expertise and we are especially blessed.  I think it’s vital that once in a while we thank them; they should never be taken for granted.

This week’s parashah is perfect for discussing this topic.  It begins with the call for donations to the Mishkan:

דבר אל בני ישראל ויקחו לי תרומה מאת כל איש אשר ידבנו לבו תקחו את תרומתי

Speak to the Children of Israel and have them take an offering for Me; from everyone whose heart motivates him, you shall take My offering. (Shemot 25:2)

The rabbis explain that the offerings needed to be voluntary and given with a full heart.  There are basic responsibilities – other offerings were obligatory – a kind of taxation, but when it comes to building the Mishkan, the donation had to be freely given.  Our volunteers don’t do things grudgingly, but freely give of their time with love and devotion.

The Mishnah in Avot notes that the world exists on three pillars – Torah, divine service or prayer and acts of kindness.  They are equated – the entire edifice of community is dependent on these three.  This is something that the Charedi communities do extremely well – creating huge networks of people, gemachim, and support projects to deliver voluntary services to people in their communities and beyond.   In Charedi communities, there is a real sense that one’s contribution is vital and that even if there are lots of Torah students, volunteers, or whatever, one’s own contribution is indispensible.  We are quite good at this but we still have much to learn.

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the late-19th-century founder of the Musar movement was once approached by someone who claimed that he only had one hour a week available what to study during that hour.  Rabbi Yisrael replied that he should learn Musar, because that would enable him to realise that he actually had more than one hour free!

This sentiment applies to volunteering too.  I suspect that many people feel that they either have no time or are not well-suited to volunteering.  This is rarely true; adapting Rabbi Yisrael’s advice – if you were to meet our volunteers, and those who benefit from their involvement and you’ll discover quickly how you really want to volunteer and how much time you can make available.

One other point – while of course, volunteering enables the community to run smoothly, to provide services that might not otherwise be available and to assist individuals, anyone who does volunteer or is engaged in any other type of chessed will tell you another side of the experience – they gain at least as much themselves as the recipient from the experience of volunteering.  Conceptually, this is no surprise: the act of giving is itself something godly: Jewish life is guided by the principle that we 'walk in God’s path' by emulating Him.  Since God is the giver and we are the recipients, altruistic acts replicate the divine model, bringing godliness and satisfaction to those who perform them.

On behalf of everyone in the community, may you be blessed with success, good health and continue to inspire me and others.

Sermon Notes 18/02/12 - Mishpatim

An Eye for an Eye: Literalism and Traditionalism

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

Following the account of the Sinaitic theophany in last week’s parashah, one would have expected the text to describe the construction of the Mishkan, moving from the revelation to the means (the Mishkan) to keep it fresh in the minds of the Israelites.  Instead, the narrative is broken up by the Mishpatim, laws mostly governing interpersonal conduct.  Rav Soloveitchik points out that this interruption conveys an important message – sensitive, honest behaviour lies at the very heart of Jewish life; one cannot even contemplate building the sanctuary without first accepting the Mishpatim.

Rabbi Yishmael notes that ‘one who wishes to become wise should study the financial laws, for there is no greater Torah topic; they like an overflowing spring’. (Mishnah Bava Batra 10:8)  It remains customary for a child’s first tractate to be one dealing with financial responsibility, not ritual law.  These rules hone the intellect and ensure that honesty and care with the resources of others is absorbed by children from an early age.

The most well-known verses in this section describe what is known as lex talionis – the law of retaliation: ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot; a burn for a burn, a bruise for a bruise, a wound for a wound’. (Shemot 21: 24-5)  For centuries, Jews were maltreated on the basis of a literal reading of these words, which assumes that we are revengeful, hateful people, whose law requires us to exact awful punishment from wrongdoers.  Yet the Talmud insists that the text actually refers to compensation for the lost limb (Bava Kama 84a); indeed, this has always been the approach of applied Jewish law.

As expected, Rashi cites the Talmud’s approach.  More startlingly, his grandson, Rashbam, known for his enthusiasm for the plain meaning of the text, also follows this view: in his critical notes to Rashbam, Professor Martin Lokshin observes that ‘Rashbam accepts the traditional reading of the text’.

In the 19th century, the validity of this interpretation was threatened by biblical criticism and a growing rejection of the authenticity of the Oral Tradition.  In response, commentators such as Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Meklenberg (HaKetav VeHaKabbalah) and Rabbi S.R. Hirsch sought to defend the traditional picture.  In what amounts to rather deft interpretative apologetics, each explains that the verse actually refers to compensation – i.e. the text means not ‘an eye for an eye’, but should be translated as ‘compensation for an eye for an eye’.  Meklenberg explains that in context, this is the only credible reading, whereas Hirsch demonstrates that the word תחת – usually translated as ‘for’, actually means ‘compensation for’.

Yet these readings leave a very obvious question – if the Torah means compensation, why does it seem to refer to retaliation?  An unambiguous text would certainly have prevented much misunderstanding and a great deal of persecution.  Is it possible to reconcile the literal meaning of the text with the traditional interpretation?

Seforno, writing around 1500, does just this.  For him, the text describes a theoretical ideal – in a perfect universe, the perpetrator of an injury should personally experience the precise consequences of his or her actions – in this case, the loss of the limb of which the victim has been deprived.  Yet the traditional reading recognises the reality that this cannot, in fact, may not, reflect actual practice, for various practical and ethical reasons.  As such, it is not necessary to distort the plain meaning of the words, which do in fact refer to retaliation; the traditional reading is not a translation of the words, but an interpretation, albeit one that represents the only valid practical application of the Torah’s law.  Indeed, it reflects the will of the divine within the confines of an imperfect world, beautifully harmonising the ‘real’ meaning of the text with an age-old interpretation.

Sermon Notes 28/01/12 - Bo

Of Darkness, Rationalism and Jewish Leadership

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

The last three plagues are described in the first part of this week’s parashah.  A controversial approach to the ninth plague – darkness (Shemot 10:21-23) – appears in the Torah Temimah.  This work, published in 1902 by Rabbi Baruch ha-Levi Epstein of Pinsk, comments on selected midrashim verse by verse.  Analysing a midrash which claims that the darkness was ‘as thick as a coin’ (see Yalkut Shimoni to Tehillim 105), Rabbi Epstein says the following:

Were I not afraid to produce an entirely novel approach, I would have said that the darkness was not in the air, but in the Egyptians’ eyes – a kind of cataract obscuring their pupils.  The rabbis point out that this cataract was tangible and was ‘as thick as a coin’. (Torah Temimah to Shemot 10:21, paraphrased, Hebrew text below)

Whenever a rabbi introduces an observation with the phrase ‘were I not afraid… I would have said’, he knows that what he is about to write will is contentious.  Indeed, some critics viewed Rabbi Epstein’s understanding as an unacceptable deviation from ‘normative’ interpretation; to this day, some ultra-conservative groups treat the entire work with suspicion.

In fact, Rabbi Epstein was merely following a well-trodden, but unpopular, mode of interpretation, one based firmly in the writings of the Rambam:

It is incumbent upon us to combine Torah and rationalism, to explain matters as naturalistically as possible.  Only when something is absolutely inexplicable by natural means, should one say that it is a ‘miracle’. (Rambam, Epistle on the Resuscitation of the Dead, section 2, paraphrased, Hebrew text below)

The Rambam means that one should only resort to a complex – supernatural explanation – of any event described in the Torah – when all simpler – read: naturalistic – explanations have been exhausted.  I would term this a Maimonidean version of Occam’s Razor.

While of course, the opportune appearance of targeted cataracts can only be attributed to divine intervention, Rabbi Epstein’s explanation minimises the miraculous nature of the plague of darkness by rationalising it as far as possible.  Apparently, this was something that Rabbi Epstein’s detractors found unforgivable.

This long-forgotten controversy highlights the tension between rationalistic and super-rationalistic approaches to Judaism that have existed since long before the publication of the Torah Temimah.  It lies at the heart of the radically different world-views of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Levi’s Kuzari and the Rambam’s Moreh Nevochim – Guide for the Perplexed, and continues today.

Actually, it would be more accurate to say that the rationalistic approach to Torah interpretation and Jewish thought is in retreat and has gradually ceded to the super-or even anti-rationalism which now characterises much of Orthodox society.  This is evident in every area of Jewish life: the content of popular works; the adulation of leaders; the immense growth in segulot – spiritual remedies of the ‘give your money to this cause and you’ll find a spouse, have a baby, be cured of an illness, or make a living’ variety.

There are too many negative spinoffs of this phenomenon to consider in a short space.  They include the unwillingness to contextualise talmudic texts describing the observable universe and the subsequent rejection of the need to reconcile Torah with scientific discoveries, a naive, romanticised understanding of world history and a hagiographic approach to the lives of Jewish leaders.  All of these and others make some prevalent forms of Jewish life deeply unattractive to thinking people and mean that there is little opportunity for those already within the system to find answers to genuine questions.

But a particularly worrying consequence of the super-rationalistic approach is the manner in which leaders of some parts of the community are appointed and the uncritical way in which their performance is evaluated.  Sadly, rabbinical leaders are not always chosen because they have the appropriate qualifications, can identify with the lives and concerns of their charges and will fight for them.   And when they remain silent in the face of injustice, as has happened too often in recent times, their disciples are willing to attribute this to the rabbis’ higher knowledge or holiness rather than to a failure of leadership.   And while, of course, every system of governance can be abused by its leaders, Jewish leadership should be a beacon of good sense, fairness and transparency, not words one would immediately associate with some contemporary leaders.

A return to rationalism, a neglected, but bona fide Jewish alternative, is sorely needed, especially in Israel.  It’s not the answer to every problem the Jewish world faces, but it will go a long way to making authentic Orthodox Judaism more attractive to intelligent people, better able to face the social and intellectual challenges of living a religious life in a modern world, and, perhaps most importantly, more capable of producing leaders who will actually lead our communities. 

תורה תמימה, שמות י:כא

ומבואר במדרשים שהחושך כעובי דינר, וכלל הענין מופלא מאד, דמה שייך להתפיס שיעור ממשות בחושך, וגם צ"ע דלפי פירש"י שהיה כל משך המטל"ע כולו לילה ולא היה יום כלל א"כ נשתנו סדרי בראשית , וזה קשה מאד שהרי הקב"ה הבטיח לנח ולבניו ויום ולילה לא ישבותו.

ולולא מסתפינא להמציא דבר חדש מאד ה"א דענין החושך היה לא באויר רק בעיני האנשים, והיינו שהיה מתוח תבלול על אישון העין, ואמרו חכמים שאותו התבלול היה נמוש ביד וגם היה כעובי דינר, וניחא הכל.

רמב"ם, מאמר תחית המתים, קטע ב'

ואנחנו נשתדל לקבץ בין התורה והמשכל וננהיג הדברים על סדר טבעי אפשר בכל זה, אלא מה שהתבאר בו שהוא מופת ולא יתכן לפרשו כלל אז נצטרך לומר שהוא מופת.