A Flawed Partnership

A Look at Partnership Services

12/03/15

Please scroll to the bottom of this article for an endorsement by the RCUS

‘Partnership’ services have existed in some places in Israel and the United States for a while, but have only recently appeared in the UK.  They offer orthodox liturgy and traditional seating – genders are separated by a partition – but differ in that women, as well as men, lead parts of the prayers and read from the Torah.

Identifying and implementing halakhically-viable alterations to existing practice demands courage.  The orthodox world is innately change-averse, although innovation and creativity are possible within certain boundaries.  Yet since observance is defined and regulated by Jewish law, substantive modifications are only possible if they withstand halakhic scrutiny and conform to meta-halakhic (guiding philosophical) principles: supported by broad consensus among acknowledged halakhic authorities for the originator's credentials and methodology, as well as positive peer-review of his or her arguments.

From a halakhic perspective, a ‘partnership’ service includes several distinct practice-modifications, each of which deserves separate evaluation.  This is unrealistic in a short article, so I will focus only on the central and emblematic issues – women reading from the Torah on behalf of a mixed gathering and receiving aliyyot - being called to the Torah to make a blessing.

Halakhic validity for this innovation is claimed by the prominent expert in Jewish practice and Bar Ilan talmud professor, Rabbi Daniel Sperber, lately chancellor of a non-affiliated Canadian rabbinical school.  Although a few authors have written in support of Sperber, none shares his reputation and none has offered a significant alternative argument.

The essence of Sperber's reasoning follows.  Some early sources (notably a view in the Talmud with RaN's 14th-century gloss) opine that women may be counted among the seven called to the Torah on Shabbat.  Although this is cited in the 16th-century Shulhan Arukh, it is not known to have been practised; indeed, in the same talmudic passage, the anonymous 'sages' disallow the practice because of ‘dignity of the community'.  Sperber acknowledges that this has defined normative conduct from time immemorial.  Yet he notes that today, women study Torah to a high level and are as involved as men in many areas of religious and public life. Applying 'dignity of the community' to exclude women from aliyyot causes considerable distress, and, as such, can be overridden by the demands of 'human dignity', something highly prized by Jewish law.

While pastorally, Sperber's argument is appealing, it is halakhically flawed.  An exhaustive and widely-cited critique of Sperber was published in 2013 by Rabbis Aryeh and Dov Frimer.  Among their comprehensive technical rebuttals, the authors discuss Sperber's confusion of aliyyot with the Torah reading itself and his misappropriation of the notion of 'human dignity.’  Sperber's approach also evinces methodological irregularities.  Halakhah works on a system of antecedents - rulings built on an existing corpus of law and rules for its application.  As with all legal systems, it includes a wide range of views: some have been incorporated into the body of law; others, for whatever reason, have been excluded from it by the halakhic process.  One cannot simply disregard centuries of process and re-integrate marginalised opinions as the basis for practical innovation.  This equates to claiming that a long-disused judgement in 15th-century English property law could be validated as the basis for contemporary practice.  Yet this is precisely what Sperber does.  In fact, his approach suggests the untenable stance that any action not explicitly proscribed by halakhic sources is permitted.  Such claims undermine the very system within which Sperber purports to operate.

Halakhah is a complex, multi-chromatic system, so doubtless both Sperber and his detractors could muster additional arguments for their respective positions.  However, this is effectively irrelevant, given the total lack of support for women's aliyyot in a mixed service from significant halakhic authorities of any stripe.  In fact, there is a rare consensus within the orthodox rabbinate against this innovation.  In the USA, the senior halakhic authorities of Yeshiva University categorically dismiss its credibility.  Speaking to his rabbinate (February 2014, re-iterated February 2015), Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis cited the Frimers' analysis in his unequivocal rejection of the halakhic validity of 'partnership' services.   In Israel, Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin, a leading halakhist known for his sensitive and creative approach to contemporary women's issues, offers the most damning repudiation: 'women's aliyyot remain outside the consensus, and a congregation that institutes them is not Orthodox in name and will not long remain Orthodox in practice.'  As such, the practice lies beyond the parameters of halakhah, its implementation a new denominational reality; similar reasoning applies to women’s Torah reading in a mixed gathering.

For many, this will be a disappointing outcome and I remain acutely aware of the sense of disempowerment and frustration that some feel at the male-oriented leadership roles in orthodox services.  Notwithstanding these sensitivities, the cloak of authenticity provided by Professor Sperber's reputation and undeniable good intentions can only impede the genuine collaborative partnership required to generate halakhically-credible alternatives.  In a recent interview for the JC, Chief Rabbi Mirvis advocated developing Shul-based women’s prayer groups, something I consider a positive step, while acknowledging the need for other strategies.  But however we address this challenge, it is among the issues that will define the future of centrist orthodoxy.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle

Sources

Talmud Bavli Megillah 23a

תנו רבנן: הכל עולין למנין שבעה, ואפילו קטן ואפילו אשה

אבל אמרו חכמים: אשה לא תקרא בתורה, מפני כבוד צבור

Commentary of RaN (Rabbenu Nissim) ad loc.

ומיהו השתא דתקון רבנן שיברכו כולם אשה וקטן קורין אפילו ראשון ואחרון וכיון דקורין ודאי מברכין

Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 282:3

הכל עולים למנין שבעה, אפילו אשה וקטן שיודע למי מברכין

אבל אמרו חכמים: אשה לא תקרא בצבור מפני כבוד הצבור

Sperber, D. (2003). Congregational Dignity and Human Dignity: Women and Public Torah Reading. The Edah Journal, 3(2).

Frimer, A. & Frimer, D. (2013). A SPECIAL SUPPLEMENT: Women, Keri’at ha-Torah, and Aliyyot. Tradition, 46(4).

Henkin, Y. H. (2001). Qeri'at Ha-Torah by Women: Where We Stand Today. The Edah Journal, 1(2); Tradition, 47(3) [subscribers only].

Interview with Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, JC, September 2014.

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Endorsement from the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue

The position outlined above by Rabbi Dr Harvey Belovski regarding Partnership Services is unanimously supported by the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue.

Rabbi Baruch Davis

Chair, Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue


Dayan Gershon Lopian

Obituary for Dayan Gershon Lopian זצ"ל

A prominent halachic expert, rabbinic mentor and empathetic spiritual leader with international influence, Dayan Gershon Lopian was rabbi, then emeritus rabbi, of the Edgware Yeshurun Synagogue.

Gershon Lopian, scion of a distinguished rabbinical family, was born in Portsmouth in 1938, the first child of Rabbi Leib and Tzippa (née Levy).  Rabbi Leib, a founding member of Gateshead Kolel (Institute for Higher Rabbinical Studies), was subsequently co-head of Gateshead Yeshiva.  His paternal grandfather Rabbi Eliyahu was a major figure in the ‘Musar’ (ethical discipline) movement, known for his incisive teachings and exceptional piety.

Rabbi Lopian studied first at Gateshead Yeshiva, then in Israel under his grandfather in Kfar Chassidim and at Chevron Yeshiva in Jerusalem, receiving semichah (ordination) from Rabbis Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Ovadiah Yosef and others.  He pursued advanced studies at Sunderland Kolel, where he was learning when he married Judy Saberski in 1964.  He also trained in practical rabbinics with the renowned halachic decisor Rabbi Henoch Padwa, whom he visited in London for extended periods.  While in Sunderland, Rabbi Lopian officiated at a local Shul on festivals, supervised the mikveh and butcher’s shop, and delivered shiurim.

In 1974, on a trip to the USA, Rabbi Lopian was introduced to the world’s foremost halachist, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.  He subsequently studied intensely for several months under the tutelage of Rabbi Feinstein, who conferred upon him an advanced semichah, allowing him to deliver complex rulings in a broad range of halachic fields.

In 1976, Rabbi Lopian was elected rabbi of the Federation’s Edgware Yeshurun Synagogue, a position he occupied with distinction until his appointment as emeritus rabbi at his retirement in 2006.  For a period in the ‘80s, he also served as a judge on the Beth Din of the Federation of Synagogues; this appointment dubbed him ‘the Dayan’, a title by which he was affectionately known for the rest of his life.

The Dayan was known as an attentive and capable rabbi: compassionate pastor, expert educator and effective champion of greater halachic observance. His tenure at Yeshurun coincided with a tremendous development of the Edgware Orthodox community: an increase of Shuls and opportunities for Torah study; the construction of a mikveh in which he was a driving force; the influx of observant families and newly religious to the area and the consequent proliferation of Jewish shops and other facilities.  This transformation is in large part attributable to the efforts of the Lopians, who gradually emerged as the senior Orthodox leaders in Edgware.

The Dayan's growing role as an halachic decisor of national and, ultimately, international significance reflected a unique confluence of outstanding scholarship, absolute conviction in the benevolent universality of the halachic system, a loathing for superficiality - what he called 'sartorial Judaism', a genuine love of people and a legendary sense of humour.  He was renowned for an ability to identify intensely with an individual's circumstances and challenges, sometimes even crying with strangers who had unburdened themselves.

The Dayan's decision-making technique was bravely anthropocentric, although his reputation for blanket leniency is an oversimplification.  He would actually start from the needs and context of the inquirer and move outwards to find a bespoke, yet irrefutably authentic, halachic response.  He fielded questions from all over the world, especially in the areas of Jewish family law and the challenges of the newly religious.  With a reputation for accessibility, he learned all day in a tiny study, constantly interrupted by calls, which he answered himself.  He taught hundreds of bridegrooms and was the advisor to many organisations, especially the transformational ‘Family Week’ programme, through which he and Rebbetzin Judy became long-term friends and mentors to numerous families.

The Dayan was also friend, guru and counsellor to scores of rabbis, many of whom he trained in practical rabbinics and halachic methodology.  A true 'rabbi's rabbi', he rejected rabbinic dependence, encouraging his students to make their own halachic and counselling decisions.  Enormously influential in the current rabbinate, his students lead communities across the globe.

In recent years, Dayan Lopian suffered from a number of debilitating complaints which he bore with fortitude, supported tirelessly by the rebbetzin.  Yet his increasing immobility scarcely impacted on his communal engagements and despite his obvious pain, he continued to attend events and teach shiurim, the last of which was delivered less than 24 hours before his unexpected passing.

He is survived by Rebbetzin Judy - his partner in every aspect of his communal work, two sons, three daughters, grandchildren, a great-grandchild and seven siblings.

Harvey Belovski is rabbi of Golders Green Synagogue and a long-standing student of Dayan Gershon Lopian

A version of this obituary first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle


Too Much Dancing is Bad for the Simchah

What to do if you don’t like all the Simchat Torah frolics

Simchat Torah is an emotional day, concluding the Tishri Yomtov season and ending the entire festival sequence that started with Pesach. As its name, Joy of the Torah, indicates, it’s a day focused on the Torah, when we complete the annual cycle of Torah reading and begin it all over again amid singing, dancing and communal festivities.

Yet lovely as it sounds, some are at best ambivalent towards Simchat Torah, others even regard it as an annoyance. Some of my most loyal congregants, among them daily attendees, arrive very late on Simchat Torah and others fail to turn up at all. And I’ll admit that in the years before I was a communal rabbi, on Simchat Torah I attended a “naughty boys” minyan that completed the hakafot — dance-circuits — in 15 minutes and had me home for kiddush by soon after 10am.

Of course, by the time Simchat Torah arrives, people are shuled out after a long and gruelling Yomtov season and nothing less than a day off shul will satisfy them. And it’s also obvious that no experience, however exciting, can work for everyone. Nonetheless, some aspects of the way we celebrate Simchat Torah should be re-examined in the hope of making it more attractive.

I am not a member of the “more is more” club. If dancing on Simchat Torah for an hour is enjoyable, it does not follow that two or even three hours’ dancing is more enjoyable. In fact, it can easily turn into a drag. In some shuls, Simchat Torah celebrations are even longer than Rosh Hashanah services and are chaotic experiences, major disincentives to participation, especially when, as this year, Simchat Torah falls on erev Shabbat.

The Torah reading often takes far too long (there are ways of speeding it up) and long before it’s over, people have lost interest and wandered off to the kiddush. Shuls should publish clear timetables and have enjoyable hakafot that are not too long and allow people to get home at a reasonable time.

This leads inexorably to the subject of excessive liquor consumption on Simchat Torah. There is no basis for the drunkenness that prevails in many shuls: Simchat Torah is not Purim, the only day in the year on which inebriation is sanctioned, even then in the very limited context of home feasting.

The spectacles of adults sneaking whisky bottles into services and intoxicated teenagers staggering from shul to shul are hardly among the most edifying of the Jewish year. And while there is no harm in adults having a glass of wine or the odd lechaim (it’s actually a mitzvah to drink wine in moderation at Yomtov meals), what has evolved in some places is a Simchat Torah that is too much simchah and not enough Torah, akin to barmitzvah celebrations that are too much bar and not enough mitzvah.

For many women, much of the Simchat Torah service is boring and frustrating. While some are entirely comfortable watching their menfolk sing and dance, others would love to dance with the Torah themselves, in celebration of their connection to Jewish life and learning. Many shuls have recognised this need as part of the extraordinary transformation of women’s Torah study that has taken place in recent decades and make separate provision for women’s dancing with Sifrei Torah on Simchat Torah.

And what about those — men or women — who for whatever reason, don’t dance? Some are physically unable to dance and others simply dislike dancing. And some can’t dance but don’t know it (always the fellow next to me).

The Torah itself reminds us that it is the “heritage of the community of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4), the legacy of every member of the Jewish people, irrespective of age, gender, state of health or competence at dancing.

For those seeking an alternative, some shuls provide learning programmes to coincide with the dancing and Torah reading. I think there is room to expand this to include family programming and introductory Torah classes, as well as encouraging private study. And while these shouldn’t detract from the main event in shul, they should be professionally run and of a high standard rather than a lifeless alternative for those who can’t be bothered to dance or do anything else.

We may take as the role model for brief hakafot and alternative modes of celebration no less a figure than the Vilna Gaon (died 1797). It is said that on Simchat Torah he would emerge from his private study to dance with tremendous passion for a short while and then return to his learning. If you currently feel disenfranchised by the end of Yomtov, these relatively small changes might just restore the simchah to Simchat Torah.

This article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle


A Torah Haven in the Geordie Heartlands

A Sabbatical Trip to my Alma Mater

I have recently spent a week in Gateshead, a Yeshiva town in the north of England, where my wife and I lived when we were first married and I was a student at the Gateshead Yeshiva.  I remain eternally indebted to Gateshead for the outstanding Torah education I received there, and particularly for the encouragement I received to develop into an independent rabbi and halachist.  Yet it was the first time since my departure for the rabbinate some 13 years ago that I’d spent more than the odd day there.

On the surface, very little has changed in Gateshead: the same spiritually-striving and hospitable Torah families hidden behind gloomy ‘Coronation Street’ terraces; the same economic challenges.  Yet the community has doubled in size since the early 90s, necessitating expansion into areas that were once exclusively Geordie, and there is a greatly enhanced infrastructure including a community health-centre (in our former home).  But the most significant ‘news’ has been the appointment of Rabbi S.F. Zimmerman as town Rav following the passing of the esteemed Rabbi Rakow.  A brilliant, articulate and thoughtful American, he seems to have struck just the right balance between preserving Gateshead’s conservative character and instigating changes vital for the community’s development.  These include modernising the education system by facilitating alternatives to long-term Torah study for adults, and encouraging working families to settle and start businesses in Gateshead, fostering greater religious and social diversity and increasing local prosperity.

I am delighted that I found the experience overwhelmingly positive: I was royally hosted by dear friends, sat in my former seat in the Yeshiva for Shacharit, and enjoyed a visit to the colossal Lehmann’s bookshop, where I picked up a couple of hard-to-come-by mediaeval commentaries on Rashi.  I also had the privilege of private meetings with the Rav, the Rosh Yeshiva and the Yeshiva’s spiritual supervisor.  Of course, much of this is nostalgia: it felt good to retrace familiar steps and to show the children where ‘Daddy used to learn’.

I was especially struck by the mature attitude of many of the people I met when confronted with someone (me) whose outlook and objectives differ considerably from theirs.  I recall that this had always been my experience in Gateshead, especially at the Yeshiva.  When I joined in 1990, I was several years older than my class-mates; they had strong backgrounds in Torah learning, I did not; whereas my wife and I had recently graduated from Oxford, most of them had no intention of attending university; they wore the sombre ‘yeshiva kit’, and I was none too keen on the dress-code.  But from the very first day I was welcomed as a full member by staff and students alike.

Those contrasts of twenty years ago are now more manifest.  I spent the entire week in Gateshead working on my doctoral dissertation.  It is well-known that the ‘Yeshiva World’ tends to view academic Jewish studies with distrust, and the potential holder of a ‘Rabbi Dr.’ moniker with suspicion.  Yet everyone, without exception, from the people I met casually to the Rav, were interested in what I am doing, and genuinely enthusiastic about my achievements.

My experience was repeated in conversations with old friends, some of whom have children of the same ages as ours.  I was asked a number of times what our eldest daughter Michali, who is now in school-year 11, will be ‘doing next’.  Here, the differences couldn’t be more pronounced: it is the norm in Gateshead for children to leave school after GCSEs to go to yeshiva or seminary, whereas Michali is choosing her A-Level subjects in preparation for university.  Again, I found the people with whom I spoke to be supportive and encouraging, even though Michali’s plans diverge so greatly from what they would consider appropriate for their children.

I think that this phenomenon reflects the fact that the Gateshead community contains many people who are not just thoroughly decent, but happy and secure with their own life-choices.  I’ve noticed that unhappy and insecure people within our religious world feel a need to run down others in order to validate their own positions; those who are secure can celebrate the choices of others, even when they strongly disagree with them, without feeling threatened.  And while I’m sure that that there are those in Gateshead who do not behave like this, I have realised that this is why I have continued to feel comfortable with the people there, despite the considerable gulf between our aspirations.

Thinking more broadly, this is a good working model for cross-communal cohesion.  Even those individuals and communities with radically different styles and understandings of the world can peacefully co-exist, but this is unlikely to happen unless their leaders are happy and secure with their own identities, and make this manifest in the message they preach.  Regrettably, this is uncommon – in many places, religious life thrives on delegitimisation.  Much rests on our ability to convey a sense of contentment and joy to our children and students.

I was encouraged by my visit to Gateshead: for all its pious insularity, it is a community of people who appear to be secure in their choices, something that can only contribute to harmony in an otherwise fragmented religious world.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle here.

A long-awaited trip to Israel

In Israel with Tehilloh

My second daughter, Tehilloh, is very excited, as in about a month, God willing, she and I will be spending eight days together in Israel. She will become Bat Mitzvah at the end of June, and this trip to Israel, her first, is her special birthday present from me and my wife.

I have the privilege of visiting Israel often, but for various reasons, my wife gets there only occasionally, and my children not at all. As such, it is a challenge to ensure that our children share our passion for Israel and remain aware of the fact that Israel lies at the centre of all Jewish religious, political and national aspirations. It is too easy for them to spend their childhood in the comfort of Golders Green without properly understanding the importance of Israel and the focal role that it ought to play in their lives and objectives. How does one convey to children living in a Diaspora that is largely happy and supportive of their religious lives that living outside Israel is not ideal? How does one teach Diaspora children to comprehend the miracle of the Jewish return to the Land, celebrate Israel’s successes, commiserate with her failings and identify with Israel and Israelis? How does one make them appreciate that the heart of the Jewish people beats not in Golders Green or Boro Park, but in Jerusalem?

One way that we have devised is to try to take each child for a private, intensive tour of Israel as the main part of the celebration of their religious maturity. I took our eldest daughter three years ago, but I hope that as we get further down the family, my wife will be able to take some of the children for their special tour. The rest of the celebration will be modest – a dinner for family and friends and a Se’udah She’lishit hosted by our community – but the trip to Israel is seen as the ‘big’ experience. While we are there, I hope to take Tehilloh to key places of religious and historical interest (she’s been researching where she would like to go), see some friends, engage in a chessed project and visit a couple of famous people. But mostly, I want Tehilloh to have a fabulous time soaking up the incomparable atmosphere of the Land, to experience its smells, sounds, people, craziness and Jewishness so that she too will get the ‘Israel bug’ that will fill her dreams and aspirations, as my wife and I did years ago. I am confident that this trip will do the job and enable her to understand why when I return from one trip to Israel, I can’t wait to plan the next.

As you can tell, I’m as excited as Tehilloh, even though I’ve done it all before, not least to get eight whole days of private daughter-daddy time. But most of all I’m excited and blessed to have the opportunity to contribute to strengthening Tehilloh’s Jewish identity and helping her to build her connection with our Land.

Isn't our meat good enough for you?

A meaty tale

A rabbi goes to heaven and is invited to sit at a banquet attended by Moshe himself. He makes a discreet enquiry and discovers that the food is under Divine supervision. The rabbi whispers in a waiter’s ear, ‘I’ll take the fish!’

Many people are puzzled by the suggestion that a rabbi might endorse some area of religious life but be reluctant to partake in it himself. For example, it troubles people that some rabbis won’t eat from certain kosher butchers; others won’t carry on Shabbat, even inside an area enclosed by an ‘eruv’. One hears the obvious concerns about inconsistency expressed in blunt terms: ‘is it kosher or not? If it’s kosher why won’t you eat it, and if it’s not kosher, why should I?’

It is not possible to make sense of this phenomenon without examining some of the underlying principles of halachah – Jewish law – and how they differ from common assumptions. Some rabbis, for whatever reason, have been unwilling to teach these ideas, perhaps considering them too uninteresting or abstruse for the average Anglo-Jew. I disagree. Indeed whenever I have tackled this topic, be it in conversation, writing or public lecture, it has been met with appreciation and, I hope, greater understanding.

Jewish law is fascinating and complex. Even the word ‘halachah’ (lit. a way to go) indicates a process rather than a ruling. It is a complete system that regulates every area of life, from the mundane to the most profound. Halachah cares not only how we act, but also how we think and feel about ourselves, other human beings, the world itself, and, of course, God. As such, it is all-encompassing in its scope and the opportunity that it gives us to maximise every instant, imbuing it with meaning and purpose. From cradle to grave, boardroom to bedroom, halachah is ever-present, allowing every moment to be experienced through the lens of the Divine.

Yet the comprehensive nature of halachah should not be confused with the desire to create a monolithic society in which everyone behaves identically. Indeed, disagreeing is the halachists’ favourite pursuit: unresolved arguments appear on each page of the Talmud and halachic code; in fact, there is only one chapter (in over 500) in the entire Mishnah that doesn’t contain a disagreement! While there are, naturally, established processes by which practical decisions are made, halachah might best be described as ‘organised disorder’ – a vast array of disagreements built on earlier disagreements. Some view this as an insanely unworkable system; others, me included, consider it to be one of Judaism’s greatest strengths. Disorder and multiplicity indicate range and diversity and are actually powerful tools that allow halachah to be applied in a responsive and case-driven manner, rather than as a blunt, insensitive instrument.

For example, there is an ancient dispute between major kashrut authorities concerning the pulmonary condition of cattle. While some overlook certain lesions of the lung, others (notably Rabbi Yosef Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch) are of the opinion that animals with such lesions are forbidden. This unresolved disagreement broadly manifests itself in a disparity of practice between Ashkenazim (lenient) and Sephardim (stringent). Yet, understandably, many Ashkenazim choose to be stringent. Another example of this phenomenon is the mediaeval dispute about the distinction between a private domain (where one may construct an ‘eruv’) and a public domain (where one may not). This disagreement resurfaces throughout halachic literature and influences the approaches of modern experts as to where and how one may create an eruv.

Although there are well-established community norms in almost every area of law, we have shown that halachah does not offer a single answer to any legal issue, but an array of possibilities, within a carefully defined framework. Because of this, halachah is able to deal not just with ‘regular’ circumstances, but is flexible enough to accommodate emergency shortages, unexpected financial hardship, and the needs of the spiritually sensitive.

Despite the intricacies involved, Jewish life is greatly enriched by the application and validation of this multiplicity.

Talmudic sources conflict about whether the halachist should incline to leniency or stringency: ‘the power of leniency is preferable’ (Brachot 60a) appears to be contradicted by any number of Talmudic statements. Yet there really is no argument, as it is a given that the rabbi is to be lenient when ruling for others, yet stringent for himself and those who are striving for spiritual perfection. After all, his job is to make Jewish life as manageable, enjoyable and uplifting as possible. This demands leniency, where possible, especially when nurturing the spiritual needs of a disparate community. While there are many complex factors at play, inclusivism seems to me to be critical: given the constituents of a community, a ruling (certainly always based on proper sources and expert advice) must enable as many people as possible to observe their Judaism and feel comfortable within it.

This doesn’t always mean being lenient: a stricter ruling will sometimes be more inclusive, but it is obvious that responsible rabbinical leadership must always incline to leniency when regulating public religious services such as butchers’ shops. Ill-conceived stringency could result in price increases, restricted availability and fewer people observing kashrut. The same applies to building an eruv: the advantages of a community eruv are so clear that they outweigh the need to accommodate every halachic view, which might result in not building it at all.

Well-founded leniencies are squarely within the boundaries of halachah; yet this does not mean that everyone will want to rely on them. Halachah accommodates (and even celebrates) a range of practices for different circumstances and there have always been individuals who have elected to follow stringent practices. Yet while it is entirely reasonable for rabbis to adopt personal stringencies, they certainly ought to explain what they’re doing and why!

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle

Letter to Jewish Chronicle July 2009

Letter to the editor

I sent the following letter for publication to the Jewish Chronicle. It appeared in part in today's edition.

Dear Sir

I write to thank Rabbi Tony Bayfield for unequivocally supporting the Chief Rabbi in his attempt to fight the recent Appeal Court ruling against JFS. Rabbi Bayfield’s admirable response illustrates a point I made in my recent JC article – that acknowledging our differences, rather than pretending that they can be smoothed over, enables us to work together on issues that impact on us all. Unlike your columnist, the predictable Mr. Alderman and a number of other ill-informed correspondents, Rabbi Bayfield understands that the JFS ruling rejects the definition of Jewishness accepted by every Jewish movement in the UK, not just the Orthodox, as it insists that Jewishness is defined by practice, not by descent or conversion by any standard. By this criterion, a Sabbath-observant member of ‘Jews for Jesus’ is considered more Jewish than a non-observant born Jew or one converted by any movement. It is lamentable that so many have used this nadir in Anglo-Jewish history to attack the Chief Rabbi, when the ruling so obviously equally affects his detractors, whose interests he is fighting hard to protect.

Yours faithfully

Harvey Belovski (Rabbi), Golders Green Synagogue, 41 Dunstan Road, NW11 8AE

JCoSS: not cross-communal; at best non-Orthodox

Thoughts about a the new JCoSS school

The imminent opening of JCoSS (Jewish Community Secondary School) has generated unprecedented interest. Adorned with the slogan ‘excellence, choice, openness, inclusion’, its website describes it as ‘the first cross-communal Jewish secondary school in the UK’. JCoSS takes pride in its admissions policy, which ‘will treat on an equal basis all pupils recognised as Jewish by any of the UK’s mainstream movements’ and its intention to deliver Jewish studies ‘while being non-judgemental between the various mainstream Jewish traditions’.

JC readers will not be surprised to discover that ‘JCoSS worries Orthodox (United Synagogue) rabbis’ (14/05), nor that in a spurious comparison with Limmud, Miriam Shaviv (21/05) opined that rather than fighting a war already lost, the rabbinate should ‘face facts’ and ‘embrace JCoSS’. The battle-lines seem drawn already.

Before exploring further, I acknowledge the certainty that numerous children from US-type homes will attend JCoSS. However the Orthodox rabbinate might prefer the world to look, we will support and nurture the Jewish lives of our communities’ children, irrespective of the educational choices made for them by their parents. It is no secret that in a rare display of virtual unanimity, US rabbis have strongly opposed formal involvement with JCoSS. Yet this has no bearing on our commitment to our children in the school. There is spirited and evolving debate about how to achieve this: some will run out-of-school programming; others are grappling with alternatives to support JCoSS pupils. And it is with deep sadness that we currently feel unable to work within JCoSS: this painful decision is informed by real concern for our children expressed in the context of legitimate anxieties about its identity.

Unfortunately, behind the happy ‘cross-communal’ picture painted by JCoSS’s professional website and cautiously-worded literature, there lies a confused ideology that conflicts squarely with basic Orthodox principles.

I am certain that JCoSS will indeed try to teach its pupils ‘about all the mainstream traditions within Judaism’, in a non-judgemental way and ‘to understand and respect all the UK’s mainstream Jewish traditions’. This inclusivism may even succeed at a practical level - the school intends its kitchens to be kosher and its weekend programmes to be Shabbat-observant, even if it can’t commit to closing on second-day Yom Tov. But ideologically this descends into pluralistic incoherence. Presumably, pupils will be taught that some believe the Torah to be the unmediated word of God, while others think that it was authored by human beings; that some consider traditional Shabbat restrictions to be optional, but others consider them absolutely binding; that while the Torah itself expressly forbids certain types of relationships, some movements consider them to be valid life-options. And while this dissent is simply a statement of fact, the ethos of JCoSS demands that each of these contradictory options is taught as equally legitimate. Apart from the obvious fact that children need certainty, a sense of imperative and firm ideas to help them build a meaningful connection to their faith, this type of pluralism is theologically untenable from an Orthodox perspective.

In a seminal 1990 essay, later developed into ‘One People’ (Littman 1993), the Chief Rabbi masterfully explains the ‘incoherence of pluralism’ by observing that it ‘presupposes the absence of absolute or normative truth and hence the falsehood of Orthodoxy’. Orthodoxy stakes its being on the existence of some truth that transcends the relativities of time. This is the rock on which pluralism founders… Where truth and falsity are at stake, the idea that both sides of a contradiction are true is itself a contradiction’.

A school whose raison d’être is the validation of conflicting stances on key issues of belief and practice must be considered at best non-Orthodox; in reality it is theologically completely and irreconcilably at odds with Orthodoxy. In that landmark essay, the Chief Rabbi demonstrates that ‘the literature (on pluralism) proceeds on the explicit or hidden premise that Orthodoxy is false’. The somewhat clumsy phrase ‘pan-non-Orthodox’ is a more theologically accurate description of JCoSS than ‘cross-communal’.

I understand the motivation of JCoSS’s founders. The educational world is dominated by Orthodoxy: in varying degrees, the non-Orthodox denominations disagree with Orthodox beliefs and practices, and most acutely with its definition of Jewishness. Why shouldn’t they create a school that incorporates their brands of Judaism? Actually, JCoSS acknowledges that in the event of over-subscription, it will prioritise those ‘who are not considered to be halachically Jewish by… all other Jewish schools’ – i.e. children considered Jewish only by the non-Orthodox. I respect their objectives, albeit tempered by genuine concern for the children of US communities, but I challenge the founders of JCoSS to reciprocate that respect by abandoning the term ‘cross-communal ’ in favour of a more candid representation of their school’s ideology. And I reach out with love to potential parents and urge them to recognise that they may be inadvertently depriving their children of their Torah heritage.

Unsurprisingly, JCoSS has provoked an identity crisis for the United Synagogue. The US has always been good at asserting what it isn’t (too frum, too Zionist, etc.), but imprecise when stating what it actually stands for. Are we too afraid of the consequences to admit that even the welcoming, inclusivist version of Orthodoxy that we champion has clear beliefs and some ‘hard edges’? Sometimes it is necessary to state the obvious: pluralism and Orthodoxy are antithetical. In the words of the Chief Rabbi, ‘pluralism is no more tolerant than Orthodoxy’, since ‘each represents a way of viewing the relationship between belief and truth, and each excludes the other’. We need not be scared of this truth, nor be anything other than respectful of others, such as the founders of JCoSS, who advocate pluralism. Again, the Chief Rabbi’s words seem prescient: ‘the search for unity does not resolve the tensions in the Jewish world. Instead it merely reproduces them’. Failing to articulate the unbridgeable gulf between Orthodoxy and pluralism misrepresents both ideologies and creates false hope for a unified Jewry. In fact, I believe that it hinders cross-communal cooperation in those areas where it is possible.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle.

Colour Among The Black Hats?

Are they all black?

The students of a prominent Eastern-European rabbi were about to join him to light the Chanukah candles. The rabbi noticed a broom near the window next to his Menorah and asked for it to be removed; apparently, he was concerned that in their zeal to emulate him, his followers would place a broom by the window before lighting their Menorahs too. There is a humorous (and definitely fictitious) end to the story: having visited the rabbi, each of his students went home, placed a broom by the window and then removed it before lighting his candles!

A common perception of a significant part of the Orthodox world is that it is narrow, monolithic and stifles individual expression. Detractors often point to the restrictive nature of Jewish law, conformity in dress-style (this criticism is levelled especially at those visible communities with distinctive garb) and the seemingly limited range of educational and other life-choices available to its adherents. There is a sense that the ‘men in black’ all think the same way and live cloned, indistinguishable lives.

There is some truth to this: traditional Judaism is predicated on a belief in the historical truth of the Sinaitic revelation and the eternal imperative of halachah. Its followers will create communities that share religious aspirations, educate their children in a certain way and where religious and social needs can be met. This may create a certain narrowness of experience, but devoting one’s life to a complete system of belief and practice involves accepting that some of the wider experiences of an unfettered life must be surrendered to a higher ideal. The intensity of experience that the religious crave may also lead them to form tightly-knit groups with their own exacting standards and social norms and look to charismatic leaders for guidance in their quest for individual perfection and constant communion with the Divine.

The Modern Orthodox world has attempted to combine serious commitment to Mitzvah observance and Torah study with aspects of contemporary scholarship, culture and engagement with the modern world. But for the rest of the Orthodox world, must fervour and spiritual ambition lead inexorably to conformity and the crushing of individuality, or is there room for personal expression and creative thought?

There will always be those who take refuge in the crowd, preferring to follow rather than to think for themselves; choosing to evade personal responsibility by relying on others. The Orthodox community harbours no fewer such people than any other group, but surely no more.

One can certainly observe those within the community who fear individual expression to the extent that they try to suppress it in others. There have been a number of unfortunate high-profile examples of this. They include banning of books that deviate from a narrow ideological line, attempting to limit higher education, abolishing concerts and other forms of entertainment, and restricting access to even the unobjectionable parts of the internet. Is it possible that some feel threatened by the very individual expression that is one of Judaism’s greatest strengths?

Yet despite these regrettable attempts to recast Judaism as a system requiring all its adherents to think and behave identically, most Jews are pretty resilient in their individual expression! Despite the superficial appearance of conformity and group behaviour that delegitimizes individuality, one readily finds a vast range of ideas, aspirations, ideologies and modes of religious expression. These differences are evident both between and with Orthodox groups. In traditional Jewish teaching, there is a spectrum of opinion on nearly every subject: the nature of God, Man’s free will, how to understand human suffering, the appropriate attitude to art and music, secular studies and even modernity itself, as well as about virtually every area of Jewish observance.

This multiplicity translates into diversity of lifestyle and belief. Even in the most Orthodox of circles, there are those who visit art galleries, love classical music, tour China, learn Arabic and even consider these essential to their religious experience. Others prefer to incorporate ‘secular’ modes of expression into Jewish contexts; in recent years, some highly professional and innovative music, art and literature have emerged. Among the ostensibly monolithic Orthodox, there are staunch Zionists, political lefties, recycling macrobiotics, DIY enthusiasts, aficionados of Kabbalah and those who reject it as mumbo-jumbo. In my own experience I have come across a Chassidic university chancellor and a number of Charedi avant garde musicians.

The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) observes that God makes each human being different from every other; as such, everyone should be able to say with confidence, ‘the world was created just for me’. A great Chassidic thinker understood this to mean that each of us has strengths and weaknesses that distinguish us from every other person; consequently, each of us has a unique spiritual task. Indeed wrestling with one’s own relationship with God is a Biblical role of the Jew. When Jacob was attacked by an unknown assailant, his name was changed to Israel, ‘because you struggled with God and with Man and you prevailed’ (BeReishit 32:29). ‘Struggling with God’ to forge a religious identity that is individualistic, yet firmly within the portals of tradition, is intrinsic to Judaism. The paraphernalia of Jewish life exist to facilitate this lofty goal, rather than stifle it. On its own terms, Judaism thrives on and celebrates individuality.

Fusing staunch commitment to a specific version of traditional Torah life with a tolerant attitude to the range of valid alternative views is a challenge which has its successes and disappointments. Yet respect for the multiplicity of views and lifestyles that the Torah accommodates is central to its system. We fail the Torah itself by stifling genuine creativity and individuality; but when we validate the legitimate religious choices and ideas of others, we not only create a harmonious and tolerant Orthodox society, but confirm the beauty and breadth of the Torah.

A version of this article appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

A version of this article appeared on Cross-Currents

Is It Ethical To ‘Hijack’ An Internet Connection?

WiFi in Halachah

In 2005, a West London man, Gregory Straszkiewicz, was fined £500 and given a 12-month conditional discharge for "hijacking a broadband connection". Using a laptop while sitting in his car, Straszkiewicz had connected to the Internet by piggy-backing on the wireless network of a local resident.

Today, many people access the Internet using Wi-Fi wireless technology, which allows a computer to connect to the web via a router, for which service the subscriber pays a monthly fee to an internet service provider (ISP). Although most such connections are secure, and accessible only via a password, some people leave their service unsecured, allowing free Internet access to anyone with a computer to hand. While breaking a security code to access a network is clearly dishonest, how might Jewish law view the unauthorised use of an unsecured connection, as in the case of Gregory Straszkiewicz?

At first glance, this looks like a simple application of the principle "one gains without loss to another": there seems to be no apparent loss to the subscriber (who has, after all, left the connection unsecured and therefore open to access by others) through unauthorised use of his wireless connection.

However, this may be swiftly discounted, since some financial loss is likely. Many domestic subscribers have capped services: if they download more than a fixed amount of data each month, they are billed extra for it. Additional usage by an outsider may push the monthly total data download over that limit, generating additional cost to the subscriber.

Another consideration is bandwidth, the quantity of data that can be transferred per second via the connection. This equates to the speed at which the connection works: the higher the bandwidth rating, the faster the connection. Unauthorised use of the connection will reduce the quality of the subscriber's use, as it will operate more slowly. So the piggy-backer's activities may result in a more expensive and/or slower Internet experience for the subscriber.

But even with an uncapped provision, where the piggy-backer uses the connection so little that the subscriber detects no deterioration in service (or the intruder uses it at a time when the subscriber is not online), piggy-backing may still be problematic.

The Talmud records a disagreement over whether "borrowing" an item without permission constitutes theft; the Shulchan Aruch rules stringently, which might seem to outlaw piggy-backing. However, the Ritva (Rabbi Yom Tov ben Abraham Ashvilli, died 1330) restricts this ruling to a case where "borrowing" an item could potentially lead to its damage. This clearly excludes piggy-backing, which causes no tangible harm to any material possession of the subscriber.

One might argue that when the subscriber leaves a connection unsecured, he is indicating that he doesn't mind if outsiders "borrow" it. This could be supported by the rule allowing one to borrow a tallit left in a public place, even without the owner's permission. However, the Bach (Rabbi Joel Sirkes, died 1640) assumes that this applies only where a mitzvah can be performed, and when the use is occasional; even when the piggy-backing is infrequent, it is unreasonable to suggest that it is a mitzvah!

Even if Jewish law theoretically allows piggy-backing, it may still be an act of piety to refrain from it. The Talmud refers to Rabbi Lazar's refusal to take a tiny splinter from a fence for use as a toothpick. Although the loss to the fence's owner was insignificant, and therefore taking the splinter technically permitted, Rabbi Lazar realised that if everyone were to adopt this view, the fence would cease to exist. Similarly, although one piggy-backer may make little difference to a subscriber, the presence of many freeloaders will drastically reduce the quality of his service, perhaps even bringing it down altogether.

A further point is that the subscriber is also bound by the terms of his agreement with the ISP: by accessing a connection from outside the premises where the router is located, the piggy-backer may cause the subscriber to be in breach of contract.

In conclusion, we can imagine a limited range of circumstances in which piggy-backing might be allowed, but even so, it is meritorious to avoid it.

Sources

A squatter need not pay rent, provided that the owner has not served him notice and the dwelling is not normally rented out. It is a case of "one gains without loss to another" Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 364:6, paraphrased

Rabbi Shimon bar Kahana walked past a vineyard with Rabbi Lazar and asked him to take a splinter for him from the fence to use as a toothpick. He refused, reasoning that if everyone were to do so, the fence would disappear. Talmud Yerushalmi Damai 3:2,

There is a dispute about one who "borrows" without the permission of the owner. One rabbi says that he is a legal borrower; another says that he is a thief. Talmud Bava Batra 88a

Unauthorised "borrowing" of an item that cannot be damaged by handling is never considered to be theft. Ritva, Bava Metzia 41a

It is permitted to take a tallit and make the blessing over it... Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 14:4

This only applies to occasional [use] when performing a mitzvah. Bach to Tur, Orach Chaim 14:4

It is forbidden to steal even the slightest amount. Yet if it is something that no-one is bothered about, it is permitted... But the Yerushalmi forbids this, as an act of piety. Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 369:1

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.