Thursday, February 23, 2017

Rav Uziel's Vision for Rabbinic Leadership

On November 26, 1936, Rav Ben Zion Meir Hai Uziel delivered a lecture to a large gathering of rabbis in Jerusalem. Titled The Seat of the Rabbinate, Rav Uziel’s words were delivered as an introduction to that day’s elections for the Council of the Chief Rabbinate of the Land of Israel. Speaking to rabbis who would potentially join him as part of the Land of Israel’s national rabbinic leadership, Rav Uziel articulated a vision for what he felt were the priorities of the rabbinate in the Yishuv in Erets Yisrael (which eventually became the modern-day State of Israel):

                  When it comes to public and national matters, the issue of Mishpat (The Torah’s Civil Laws) is a weighty and burdensome responsibility on a rabbi, for it is these matters that establish the path of life towards success or disaster, peace or dispute. God thus commanded us: “Execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates” (Zecharia 8:16).

When Rav Uziel used the term “mishpat” to describe the Torah’s civil laws, what was he referring to?

“And these are the rules (Mishpatim) that you shall set before them.” With this opening verse from Parashat Mishpatim, God begins to legislate the detailed version of the Torah’s system of civil legislation. The word Mishpatim refers to civil laws and ordinances, and by making these laws the first set of legislation following the Aseret Hadibrot (Ten Commandments) at Mount Sinai, God sends a very powerful message about how the Jewish people should go about building a truly “religious community.”

Most people looking to create a “religious community” would begin by building a house of worship. In the Torah, God sees things differently. As the Jewish people are in the initial stages of building their own religious community, civil laws governing relationships between people (Bein Adam L’Havero) are legislated before the laws on building a house of worship. Batei Din (courts) come before the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and Dayanim (judges) precede Kohanim (Priests). Parashat Mishpatim deals in matters that don’t seem “religious or spiritual” to most people -- personal injury, damages due to negligence, paying employees on time, borrowing items or lending money, to name just a few – but these actually form the core of how the Torah envisions the definition and governance of a Jewish religious society. God knows that it’s much easier to behave “religiously” within the comfortable confines of a synagogue. The true challenge is maintaining that religiosity in the workplace and at home, which is the domain of Parashat Mishpatim.

In keeping with this core value, when he wrote his Mispetei Uziel halakhic responsa, Rav Uziel devoted a special introduction to the volume on Hoshen Mishpat (the section of the Shulhan Arukh that deals with Mishpatim):
                  Amongst all of the various disciplines and halakhot, the Torah of Mishpatim -- which legislates financial laws -- distinguishes itself, as it guides and directs the way of life for all areas and aspects of society. This body of laws reflects the unique character of Judaism, whose glorious splendor is manifest through Tsdedakah (Charity) and Mishpat (Justice), which are the legacy of Judaism’s founding father (Abraham), about whom God said: “I have singled him out so that he will command his children and his household after him, that they will keep God’s way, doing Tsedakah (Charity) and Mishpat (Justice)” (Genesis 18:19).

Rav Uziel’s vision of a Mishpatim-centered society was inspired by a long and rich tradition of sources that emphasized the centrality of this vision in Judaism.

The Book of Psalms teaches: “Tsedek and Mishpat are the base of God’s throne” (Psalms 89:15). On this verse, the 13th century Sephardic Talmudist Rabbeinu Yonah comments: “Whoever upholds justice (Mishpat) upholds God’s throne, and whoever perverts justice defiles God’s throne.”

The largest and most complex section of the Talmud is Seder Nezikin (The Order of Damages), which contains the expanded halakhic/legal details of the civil laws/mitsvot found in Parashat Mishpatim. In one of the most popularly studied tractates in Seder Nezikin – Tractate Baba Kamma – we are taught: “Rav Yehudah says: He who wishes to be a pious person (hasid) should seek to fulfill the halakhot in Seder Nezikin” (Baba Kamma 30:a).

Three times a day in our liturgy, we pray in the Amidah for the restoration of our Jewish legal system, and we refer to God as Melekh Ohev Tsedakah u-Mishpat – The King who loves righteousness and justice.

Rav Uziel’s innovation was less in the concept of articulating the centrality of Mishpatim, and more in elevating this to the highest priority for rabbis in the Land of Israel. His vision was for rabbis to fully engage themselves in the domain of Mishpatim, and by doing so, they would help shape the moral and ethical character of the emerging Jewish State, and potentially bring unity to the Jewish people:

As you approach the seat of the rabbinate that you will sit upon after your election, take to heart that the full domain of mishpat -- including all of its problems and issues -- has been placed in your hands, and it will be upon you -- through trustworthiness, love honor and admiration -- to bring the entire nation closer to the values of Jewish Civil Law. Mishpat, Tsedek and Din Emet L’Amito-- judgment, righteousness and the truthful execution of the law to its fullest extent of truth -- serve as the foundations for the unity of our nation.

Sadly, Rav Uziel's vision is a far cry from today's Chief Rabbinate. His vision for a moral, ethical and Mishpatim-based rabbinic leadership is the need of the hour in the State of Israel today.  

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Ten Commandments: A Retrospective on My Son's Bar Mitzvah

(4 years ago, I wrote this piece in honor of my son Ilan's Bar Mitzvah. 4 years later, and for many years to come, its message still holds true, not only for Ilan, but for all of us).

Sometime during the 13th Century, in a private study in Barcelona, an anonymous author sat and composed Sefer Ha-Chinuch (The Book of Education). This systematic study of the Torah’s 613 commandments was beautifully written as a gift from a father to his son. In his introduction, the author lovingly states that he wrote this book “to inspire the heart of my boy, my son, with an accounting of the mitzvot…”

This week, I write these words “to inspire the heart of my boy,” my son Ilan, who celebrates his Bar Mitzvah this coming Shabbat. I compose these thoughts on Parashat Yitro as a gift to my son, with the hope that the sacred words Ilan will read from the Torah this Shabbat – especially the section known as the “Aseret Hadibrot” – The Ten Commandments – will inspire him to live a life that reflects the timeless values of these special commandments.

So, Ilan, what is it about these “Ten Commandments” that is so special? The actual translation of Aseret Hadibrot is not “Ten Commandments” (that would be “Aseret Hamitzvot”), rather “Ten Utterances.” This section is unique amongst the commandments because these ten were spoken directly by God to the Jewish People.

While preparing to read your parasha, Ilan, you noticed that the ta’amim (cantillation notes) for the Aseret Hadibrot is more elaborate, and that the verses are much longer. You learned that the public reading of the Aseret Hadibrot is done in Ta’am Elyon (Upper Cantillation), which does not divide the verses grammatically, rather by commandment, reflecting exactly how God uttered them at Mount Sinai. You learned that when chanting the Aseret Hadibrot, a special aura of reverence sets in, as you are chanting the very words that God spoke at Mount Sinai.

Why did God choose to speak these ten? To address this question, we pause to reflect on the power of spoken words. From the very beginning of time, the Torah teaches us about the power of words.

Genesis Chapter 1 tells of God creating the world. Not a single scientific detail is provided about the process of creation; instead, we are taught that “God said…and there was...” Throughout Chapter 1, “God says,” and with the power of the spoken word, God creates the entire world. We are reminded of this every morning during our prayers, when we recite Baruch She’amar V’haya Ha-Olam – Blessed be He who spoke and the world came into being.

The Talmud teaches: “Through ten utterances, God created the world” (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 32a).  Ten Utterances – sounds familiar. This parallel between the Ten Utterances of Creation and the Ten Utterances at Mount Sinai drew the attention of The Ba’al Haturim commentary (11th/12the Century, Germany/Spain). In examining both sections, he discovered something special about the opening line of both sections: they each contain the exact same number of words and letters.

Genesis 1:1: Breshit bara Elokim et ha-shamayim v’et ha’aretz (In the beginning, God created heaven and earth). In Hebrew, 7 words and 28 letters.

Exodus 20:1: Va-Yedaber Elokim et kol ha-d’varim ha-eleh le’mor (God spoke all these words saying). In Hebrew, 7 words and 28 letters.

This remarkable parallel of words and letters brings me to the message that I believe is embedded within these parallels. It is the message that I hope you take with you throughout your life, my dear Ilan (and all others who may be reading).

The job of an architect is to design and build a home. Once he has completed the home, and the inhabitants obtain the key and move in, the architect has nothing to say on how the inhabitants are to live within that home. There may be instructions for certain appliances, but there is no instruction manual on how to live a happy and successful life within the home.

In Genesis 1, God is an architect who builds a home. In ten utterances, introduced by a verse containing 7 words and 28 letters, God designs and builds a home for all of humanity.

But God goes beyond the role of an architect.

In Exodus 20, with the Aseret Hadibrot – Ten Utterances – also introduced by a verse containing 7 words and 28 letters – God provides an instruction manual on how to live in the home that He built for us.

We are taught about ethical monotheism, shunning idolatry, respecting God’s name, taking a day in seven to relax and rejuvenate, respecting parents, respecting human life, establishing faithful relationships, respecting the property of others, living honestly and shunning jealousy.

In ten utterances, God built a physical world… and in ten utterances, God established a moral code for all of us.

My dear Ilan: God’s physical world is beautiful, but filled with twists and turns, ups and downs, stability and surprises. These beautiful Aseret Hadibrot that you proudly read on your Bar Mitzvah shall serve as your moral compass, helping you navigate through life’s challenges. May they guide you, along with the entire Nation of Israel whose minyan you now join.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Banning Female Clergy

This week I write to you from Jerusalem, where – despite the new administration’s talk to move the U.S. Embassy here --I have actually heard very little discussion about the new president or anything connected to him.

What was more talked about – at least in the circles I walk in – was the joint statement released last week by the Orthodox Union (OU) and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), effectively placing a ban (sorry, just had to use that term!) on Orthodox female clergy and any Orthodox synagogue who employs female clergy. The statement made it very clear that there is absolutely no room for women to hold any title – rabbi or otherwise – that involves serving an Orthodox community in a clergy role:

“We believe that a woman should not be appointed to serve in a clergy position. This restriction applies both to the designation of a title for women that connotes the status of a clergy member, as well as to the appointment of women to perform clergy functions on a regular ongoing basis - even when not accompanied by a rabbinic type title.”

The discussion about this statement was heating up this week in Jerusalem, as there are a few large Orthodox synagogues in the heart of Jerusalem that actually do have female clergy, and, of course, many others that do not. This – not any other bans – was the talk of the town in Jerusalem this week.

The timing of this discussion couldn’t be better. This week’s Torah portion – Parashat B’Shalach – features the Exodus from Egypt, the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, and the beautiful Shirat Ha-Yam (Song at the Sea). It also features a very strong woman.

The figure traditionally associated with the Exodus is Moses, yet the Talmud states: “It is by the merit of the righteous women of that generation that the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt” (Talmud, Sotah 11:b).

The leader of that generation’s righteous women was Miriam, Moses’ older sister. Miriam was the only woman in the Torah who had the status of a “Neviah” – a prophetess. In this week’s parasha, she is described as “Miriam Ha-Neviah” – “Miriam the Prophetess.” Rashi comments that she attained the status of a prophetess when she foresaw that her mother would give birth to a boy who would lead the Jewish people out of Egyptian bondage. But in addition to her prediction, when her prophecy actually was fulfilled and the boy was born, she did not sit idly by and say “I told you so.” Instead, like a true leader who takes action, she also took care of the boy…and, I gather, you know the rest of the story. Without Miriam’s wisdom -- the instinctive and nurturing wisdom of a woman -- the exodus would not have been possible, and as the Passover Haggadah says, “Perhaps we would still be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” We became liberated due to the foresight of a female leader, a prophetess.

As the sea closed on Pharaoh’s chariots, Moses leads the Jewish people in a beautiful song of triumph and thanks to God. This song (shira) – the first song ever in the Torah – is a part of our daily prayer service, and its presence in this week’s parasha gives this Shabbat a special name – Shabbat Shira.

But the voice of Jewish leadership in this episode was not exclusively male. Just as Moses completes his song, the Torah immediately tells us that “Miriam the Prophetess…took a drum in her hand, and all of the women followed her with drums and with dances. Miriam said: Sing unto God, for he is highly praised, the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:20-21).

At the peak of the most miraculous moment in Jewish history, the voices of two prophets – Moses, a man, and Miriam, a woman – were equally heard by the Jewish people, and by God.

Related to this week’s parasha is also this week’s haftara (prophetic portion) from the Book of Judges -- Chapters 4&5 -- the longest haftara of the year. Haftarot are typically chosen due to their thematic connection with the parasha. This week’s haftara relates to the parasha in two ways: 1. It tells the story of a female leader, Devorah, who also had the title “Neviah” (prophetess). Devorah was a prophetess, a judge and a warrior. She was the absolute leader of the Jewish people in her era. 2. It records a lengthy song of military triumph and praise to God (similar to the Song at the Sea), sung by Devorah.

Once again, a woman leads our people, and a woman sings…and we don’t see any opposition to this anywhere in the text.

The Biblical, Talmudic and Rabbinic texts grant prominent status to Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, Leah, Miriam the Prophetess, Devorah the Prophetess, Esther, Ruth, Bruriah, Rashi’s daughters and many other women throughout our history. They are considered important and influential voices of spiritual and political leadership in the Jewish community, sometimes tasked with the heavy burden of saving our people from annihilation or leading our people in times of war.

Indeed, the timing of this week’s Torah portion couldn’t be better. How funny that on the same Shabbat when a congregant hears the Torah and Haftarah talking about two women who are both leaders and prophets, he/she will then go to the kiddush after services and most probably hear fellow congregants talking about how women cannot serve as clergy.

The irony of that is, well…you figure it out.

Shabbat Shalom