Torah too R-rated for some Chasidim, so they edited it


For some Chasidim, the Torah is too hot to handle.

A recently published Bible study guide in use in a Chasidic village in suburban New York omits certain risque passages and entire passages of the Book of Genesis, according to Israeli scholar and blogger David Assaf of Tel Aviv University.

The censored chumash, or Bible, was printed for Beit Tziporah, a girls school in New Square, a village of Skverer Chasidim in New York State’s Rockland County.

For example, the chumash edits out a section at the end of Genesis 19 in which Lot’s two daughters get their father drunk and sleep with him so they can get pregnant. The chumash also omits the entire first two parshas, or Torah portions, of Genesis, cutting out the story of the world’s creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the Tower of Babel, beginning instead at the story of Abraham.

Is this because the first two portions are about non-Jews?

Among other omissions in the chumash: The story of Onan, who spilled his seed rather than impregnate Tamar; Judah’s sexual encounter with his daughter-in-law Tamar disguised as a prostitute; and Potiphar’s wife’s attempted seduction of Joseph.

Meanwhile, other seemingly risque stories are left in, such as the tale of Dina’s rape, Assaf notes.

To be fair, this edition clearly is intended as a study guide, rather than a full account. Each of the verses intentionally leaves one word blank, for the girls to fill in from memory.

I suppose the girls aren’t expected to commit to memory the wholesale passages that have been omitted.

[UPDATE: A former Charedi Orthodox colleague tells me it's considered forbidden in many Chasidic circles for women to study verses from the Torah in whole, which may be why a word is left blank in every verse.]

MUSIC VIDEO: Hassidic prayerful dancing


Joyous prayerful singing a la Rav Shlomo Carlebach? Sure. Now how about some prayerful dancing!

Nourish Your Soul With a Helping of Jewish Learning


Torah study in its broadest sense is the path to the divine. The Chasidim and their spiritual descendants traditionally reach toward God through ecstatic music, with the mediation of their rebbes.

The more straitlaced Mitnagdim found God in the intricacies of halacha, the “path” that constitutes the Jewish legal system and defines almost every aspect of what a Jew says and does.

Many Reform Jews express their connection with the divine through social action and tikkun olam, fixing God’s world. While all of these are also part of my own life as a Jew, it is study that nourishes my rationalist-traditionalist soul and links me to another realm.

In Deuteronomy 30:11-13, Moses assured the Jewish people that the Torah was neither “too baffling” nor “beyond their reach.” He poetically anticipates their objections — that the words of God are too far way, either “in the heavens” or “beyond the sea,” for a mere human to even approach.

Moses reassures them in verse 14 that Torah is indeed accessible and attainable: “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”

When Torah is in your mouth, when you are studying aloud and in the company of other Jews, you are “observing” the Torah, creating a path to God through study.
For adult Jews today who want to study Torah, in its broadest sense of any Jewish learning, the possibilities are manifold. You can pursue as much or as little as possible, finding something that matches your own time and inclinations.

Fairly early in my life I committed myself to learning Hebrew — not just decoding the letters, which I learned in kindergarten, but as both a mode of communication and a tool for Jewish study.

I made this decision many years ago while sitting in a women’s section in an Orthodox shul and using a Yiddish-Hebrew prayer book. With those two languages of my tradition side by side, I felt deeply the power of language as a force that binds Jews as it conveys our tradition, culture and religion. At that moment, I vowed to become fluent in both languages, but I only managed to succeed in Hebrew.

It was a long, hard slog — college and graduate school classes, tapes, easy Hebrew newspapers and two ulpanim 22 years apart. But the paybacks have been manifold.

Hebrew is a compact language that packs a lot of bang in a small space; an English translation of a Hebrew passage, for example, requires many additional words to express the same material. Hebrew words also echo across the Jewish tradition, accumulating meaning across time — through Torah, rabbinic and medieval commentary, and the flourishing modern Hebrew language. And, as the framework of Torah, the letters themselves are said to have a mystical power.

But these same letters sometimes feel like an impossible wall to many adults, keeping them on the outside, mystified rather than mystically moved. I’ve seen them in the adult b’nai mitzvah classes where I teach Hebrew reading. Fear of making a mistake, a terror that “maybe I’m too old to learn,” worry that “everybody but me knows what they’re doing already” — all of these are bulwarks that maintain ignorance. Yes, learning to read Hebrew requires a commitment and time. But as learners make their way to the other side, they’ll find themselves on the inside looking out and feel connected instead of alienated.

Although being able at least to read Hebrew is an important step for Jewish educational self-confidence, much Jewish learning is available without knowing a single word of Hebrew or even the alef-bet, the Hebrew alphabet.

The format that works best for me in Jewish study has been to learn with a cohesive group that studies together for a period of time. When studying with the same group of people, you get to know them personally as well as intellectually. You benefit not only from the knowledge of the group leader, but from both the Jewish and personal experiences of the individuals around the table (and, I mean specifically around a table — this kind of learning doesn’t happen with rows and a dais — although that kind of learning has its place too).

I owe my awareness of this kind of study to the havurah movement, whose tenet for Jewish study is that everyone has something to contribute, be it from their secular work experiences, their personal relationships or their own Jewish learning.

Some subjects work better than others to really ignite this type of study. For beginners, it’s often an adult b’nai mitzvah class or perhaps a conversion class where participants are taking tentative steps toward Jewish understandings by connecting new ideas to their own life experiences.

For more advanced learners, certain texts may work better to unlock personal sharing. I once studied midrashim, or ancient commentaries and stories, on the near sacrifice of Isaac in the book of Genesis with a class of university professors and townies. The rupture of relationship between father and son and extreme demands of loyalty by God brought latent emotions to the surface and promoted acknowledgement of these feelings and personal responses. In my women’s study group we recently studied selected Psalms where the raw feelings, the suffering and the ambivalence toward God’s actions evoked resonances that created meaningful connections between the people present.

Jewish learning also can work well in a class where the leader’s role is more teacher than facilitator (although both are certainly important for any successful learning experience).

The last leg of my own Jewish learning is the Internet, which offers a realm of possibilities. One fantastic resource is myjewishlearning.com, which covers Jewish learning — from Jewish life, practice, and culture to history, ideas, and beliefs, to Jewish texts — in bite-size chunks. The articles are tailored to an Internet audience that wants good information quickly and at the depth required, offering both broad-based introductions to material and nuanced essays on particular aspects of a field.

Through the Internet I also receive several divrei Torah each week — although I have to admit I seldom read them immediately but rather save them in portion-specific files as resources for future use (both for myself and for parents of my b’nai mitzvah students who want to learn about their children’s Torah portions). I also subscribe to the Bet Midrash Virtuali of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel and every few days receive text and commentary of Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers. The interpretations come not just from the facilitator of the group, but also from other participants who email their own comments.

Not only are there multiple venues where adults too can participate in Jewish education, but books are being written to specifically aid the process. Barry Holtz’s “Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts” (Simon & Schuster) has been a resource since 1984, but a more recent amazing aid to serious adult Jewish Torah study is “The Commentator’s Bible” by Michael Carasik (Jewish Publication Society, 2005). This book translates the medieval Bible commentators into accessible English, with the commentators basing most of their comments on either the new JPS translation of the Torah or the more literal old JPS translation.

Jewish education has connected me to the soul of Judaism. I keep kosher, I observe the holidays, I go to services regularly, yet I find study to be my most dependable spiritual connection to the Jewish tradition. I think the rabbis knew that no single path works for everyone, yet their own pursuit of study and discussion is certainly one they have encouraged us to emulate. It is not a mistake that Torah in its broadest sense of both study and practice is one of the three goals for each Jewish newborn, along with chuppah (marriage) and ma’asim tovim (good deeds).

When Torah is in your mouth, when you are studying aloud and in the company of other Jews, you are “observing” the Torah, creating a path to God through study.

Michele Alperin is a freelance writer and a former lifecycle editor for MyJewishLearning.com. She has a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Rebels: The Other Face of Chasidim


Recently, my friend Stan — a nonpracticing lawyer who spends much of his time retooling his Web site and rollerblading around Venice in tight green biking shorts and what can best be described as Elton John sunglasses — has been flirting with becoming Lubavitch. Even though he isn’t ready to trade his shiny spandex for a black suit and hat, Stan is deeply attracted to the Lubavitch way of life: He longs for a wife and house full of children and is drawn by the prospect of fully expressing his Jewish identity as a member of a tight-knit community, steeped in Jewish tradition and insulated from the pressures of modern life.

Given all this, I was hardly surprised by Stan’s reaction when I began telling him about my own forays into the Chasidic world, conducting research for my book, “Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels,” among people who are struggling to live within, or even leave, their communities, and who are secretly transgressing in all sorts of ways in order to fulfill their intellectual and emotional needs.

“You mean there really are Chasidic people who are unhappy with that life?” he replied incredulously. “But it’s so beautiful.”

Stan is an incurable romantic.

Over the past two years, I have met many Stans — usually non-Orthodox Jews who look longingly upon the Chasidim as representatives of a kind of alternative lifestyle, attractive for both its perceived spirituality, as well as its commitment to the maintenance of Jewish tradition. Of course, more often than not, these Stans turn out to know almost nothing about how life is actually lived in contemporary Chasidic communities.

They are usually unaware of all the ways in which Chasidic people’s lives are governed by the strict interpretation of Jewish law their communities embrace, ranging from how they are supposed to put on their shoes to whom they can socialize with, and even when they can touch their spouse. (By the way, the hole in the sheet is a myth.)

And many also don’t know that — with the exception of the Lubavitchers, who are unique among Chasidic sects for their outreach to secular Jews — members of Chasidic sects are raised to avoid all unnecessary contact with the outside world. This means they are not allowed to read secular books, watch movies or television, use the Internet, go to museums, follow sports, listen to non-Jewish music or go to college. Being identified as someone who does any of these things can result in rejection by one’s relatives and friends, loss of employment in the community and stigmatization of family members by association.

Despite these prohibitions, there are those Chasidim who nonetheless feel compelled to explore the world beyond Chasidic borders. Some such people are religious questioners, like Steinmetz, a young married man who sneaks off to the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary behind his unsuspecting wife’s back to read forbidden books on Spinoza and Kant and the Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment).

Despite his break, Steinmetz feels he cannot leave. He hails from a prominent rabbinical family and has a wife and several children. As a result, his fantasy of escaping what he calls the “tight cage” of his life is likely to remain just that, and books his only comfort.

Other people I interviewed are motivated to transgress in smaller ways, just to experience parts of the world. Chanie, a religiously observant woman, loves nothing more than to spend the day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an activity that, if discovered, could get her fired from her teaching job in the community, but which is too important to her to give up.

For some Chasidim, these furtive forays into the outside world provide a much-needed outlet that enables them to remain in a community to which they feel deeply attached. For others, this kind of exploration can lead to doubts and questions about the Chasidic way of life, and even the tenets of the religion.

For example, when a married woman named Dini began surfing the net on a computer she and her husband had sneaked into their house in garbage bags, she started to encounter people and ideas online that caused her to reevaluate the Chasidic understanding of gender and to challenge it in her everyday life, earning her numerous letters and phone calls from the community “modesty patrols.”

When I describe these and other “rebel” Chasidim to the Stans, they are often somewhat taken aback. Most concede that the Chasidic way of life may not be for them after all. But many still express chagrin that it might not be good for some Chasidic people, either.

And they’re not the only ones who seem to feel this way. I have encountered many secular and Reform Jews who, while they actively oppose the Chasidic way of life, somewhat paradoxically still feel the Chasidim play a vital role in upholding “authentic” Judaism. This reaction is genuinely puzzling to the people who participated in my research.

“If these other Jews feel it’s so important to preserve this way of life, let them switch places with me,” one man suggested. He had done his time in the living museum and would be happy to quit his display case and give someone else a chance to be in the exhibit.

Jewels of Our Lives


There are stories that one needs to hear many times in order to remember them, in order to file them in a manner that they can be retrieved when needed. But then I’m sure you have listened to stories that you heard not only with your ears and memory, but with your soul as well; stories that you knew the moment you heard them you would never forget them. Thirteen years ago, I was standing in a store of sefarim (holy books) in Yerushalayim with my rebbe, Shlomo Carlebach. He took a book off the shelf, kissed it and handed it to me while saying, "Do you have this book? You must have it."

It looked like so many other books in the store, so many other books in my library. "It’s the Bat Ayin — the teachings of the holy Avritcher Rebbe — you must have it."

"But who is he?" I asked.

Reb Shlomo looked at me and said, "Remember the story with the precious stones? It is him!"

I smiled as my eyes teared. "Yes," I said, "I remember."

The Bat Ayin, Rav Avraham Dov of Avritch, was one of the Chasidic leadership who made aliyah in 1777. One day, a stranger entered his chazter (courtyard) in the city of Tzfat and Rav Avraham ran to greet him. The Chasidim couldn’t hear what they spoke of, but as soon as the stranger left, the rebbe returned to his study and did not emerge for three weeks. The Chasidim were puzzled: Who was that person? What did he and the rebbe discuss? Why did the rebbe lock himself in his study for three weeks? Their puzzlement grew when the rebbe finally emerged and commanded his Chasidim to prepare the most amazing tish (a rebbe’s table).

The Chasidim did as they were told. They ate and drank and sang and danced. But the whole time, all they really wanted to know was: Who was the stranger? What did he and the rebbe discuss? Why did the rebbe lock himself in his room for three weeks?

At last one of the Chasidim mustered up the courage to ask the rebbe, "Why?"

The rebbe silenced them and began: "Many years ago, while still in Avritch, I would always sit for hours with anyone that came from Eretz Yisrael. I would question them about the Holy Land and what it was like to live there. One day a shliach d’rabanan [charity collector] showed up and we talked endlessly. When he stood to leave I begged him, ‘Please, tell me more!’

"He said to me, ‘I’ve told you everything.’

"But I insisted, ‘Tell me more!’

"He said to me, ‘What more can I tell you? When you stand at Ma’arat Hamachpela along with the Patriarchs and Matriarchs you will know.’ And he turned to leave.

"I begged of him, ‘Please, tell me more!’

"He said, ‘What more can I tell you? When you stand at Kever Rachel [Rachel’s tomb] and cry with her, you will know.’ And again he turned to leave.

"I continued to beg, ‘Please, tell me more!’

"He said, ‘I’ve told you all I can. When you get there you will see for yourself, even the stones are precious stones. Even the stones are made of emeralds and rubies and diamonds!’ And with this he left.

"So you see," the rebbe turned to his Chasidim, "when I arrived, everything was exactly as he said it would be. Everything but the stones — they were regular stones, they weren’t precious stones at all. I could never understand why he lied to me. Why the last thing he told me was not true.’

"Three weeks ago, he walked into the chatzer, and despite the passage of 20 years I recognized him immediately. I ran to him and said, ‘Everything you told me was true, but the stones! Why did you lie to me? Why did you tell me they were precious stones when they are not?!’ He looked at me and said with dismay and surprise: ‘What? They’re not?’

"So I locked myself in my study and I began to cry. Every day I would cry and look out at the stones. Today, finally, while looking out of the window I realized that every stone was precious. Every stone was an emerald or a ruby or a diamond!"

The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b) tells us that on Rosh Hashanah the Books of Life and Death are opened and that between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are all registered in one of the two books. But who does the actual signing? Who else but God could do this? The Avritcher Rebbe tells us that it is our own signature that appears in these books. If we choose to look at ourselves, at other people, at our world, at the events of our lives as jewels, then indeed we have signed ourselves in the Book of Life.

The Avritcher Rebbe had to cry in order to transform his sight. And you? Will the transformation happen through joy? Through prayer? Through dance? Through learning? What will it take for you to sign yourself in the Book of Life?


Reb Mimi Feigelson is lecturer of rabbinic literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.