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Jewish law versus Jewish journalism

Can traditional Jewish law sanction journalism? Can journalism be practiced by people who look to halachah as their guide for daily living?

At first, these seem like absurd questions. The profession of journalism is entirely about the public sharing of information — the good, the bad and the ugly. Halachah (Jewish law), on the other hand, demands that we be extremely circumspect about sharing information about others, even positive information.

Halachah contains broad prohibitions against being a talebearer. “Do not go about as a talebearer among your people,” reads the verse in Leviticus. Furthermore, Jewish law forbids lashon harah — literally, evil speech, or speaking badly of others. That alone would seem to severely limit the range of what a contemporary journalist could write.

So the question as to whether journalism — in particular investigative journalism within the Jewish community — can be practiced within the bounds of halachah seems almost nonsensical. On the face of it, the answer is: Of course not.

Yet journalism thrives in almost all Jewish communities, including, of course, this one. And how would one tell talented Jewish journalists that their passion for journalism and their passion for Judaism were simply incompatible? That would not only cast aspersions upon all of the Jewish journalists in the field, but it would present halachah as a system of thought and law that has nothing to say about one of the central institutions in our lives, one of the pillars of democratic, free society.

Yet the task of meshing journalism and Jewish law is anything but simple.

Consider the Lanner case. In 2000, The New York Jewish Week published a series of landmark reports on the abuse of Jewish students by their headmaster, Rabbi Baruch Lanner. Had journalists abided by what was then regarded as the correct interpretation of Jewish law, the reporters and editors would have been obligated to keep the information and the lurid details out of the public eye for as long as possible, instead sharing it only with those individuals who exerted direct influence over Lanner. But many of those individuals, we later learned, were unwilling or unable to stop his abuse. The decision of The New York Jewish Week to publish the story, and to reject the halachic interpretation that regarded public exposure as a last resort to be exercised only when all else has failed, not only stopped the abuse, it single-handedly placed the issue of sexual abuse in school and youth group settings squarely into the communal conversation, leading to far-reaching systemic change in how the community thinks and acts.

The task of meshing journalism and Jewish law is anything but simple.

“Theoretically, one should not want to try people in the newspaper,” said Rabbi Yosef Blau, who sat on the special commission that investigated the Lanner case. “But in a practical sense, in the present time, the newspapers have proven to be a very effective tool … in forcing the community to confront the issues, rather than to stay in denial.”

Unfortunately, events over the past decade have demonstrated the unimpeachable truth of Blau’s words time and time again. Over the past 30 years, the Jewish Journal has published numerous stories that exposed the untoward acts of rabbis, leaders and institutions — stories that caused shame and grief at the time, but which, like the Lanner story, resulted in positive change, or at least greater awareness.

But it is clearly insufficient to tell Jewish journalists that, like Pinchas of old, their work requires them to violate halachic norms in the moment, and to then hope that the significance of their reporting ultimately secures them a pardon. And, in truth, none of us should accept the conclusion that halachah has no means of prescriptively affirming the value of a profession that we intuitively understand to be vital to maintaining the ethical fortitude of our community.

More recently, scholars such as Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, the dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, have been endeavoring to articulate a more workable and cogent way to speak about the relationship between halachah and journalism. Klapper demonstrates that halachah maintains different expectations for individuals on the one hand, and public systems that support the communal welfare on the other. Individuals are expected to make a precise cost-benefit analysis in every single instance in which their actions will cause harm to another person, and are typically required to err on the side of inaction. But systems or institutions that the community counts on to preserve the common good are granted more leeway. They are required to have and to enforce a code of ethics anchored in halachic imperatives and values, but the individuals working within that system are free — indeed are required — to pursue the communal interest as their highest priority.

Klapper includes responsible, ethical journalism as falling solidly within the category of systems that the community needs and desires, so that the community’s interests are served. As long as the journalistic organ has a proper code of ethics, its writers and reporters can and must do their work. Klapper’s conceptual breakthrough is premised on the idea that while journalism may not have existed when classical halachah was formulated, this does not at all mean that it cannot be understood and appreciated in halachic categories, and practiced by people who are Jewish journalists in the finest sense of both words.

None of this is to say that there aren’t legitimate dilemmas and potential pitfalls aplenty. The temptation to abuse the power of the pen is ever-present and no less irresistible than any other pleasurable vice. And this is precisely why it is so important that we have meaningful and workable halachic frameworks for journalism, and never create the impression that the twain shall never meet.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David Judea, an Orthodox congregation in Los Angeles. He contributes to the blog Morethodoxy at

RCA must stand behind the conversions performed by its members

Let us begin with the facts: Converts whose conversions were conducted according to halachah, or Jewish law, are 100 percent Jewish.

In the eyes of God and Torah, they are full Jews, just as Jewish as any born Jews. Their Jewishness is not contingent on the Israeli Chief Rabbinate or anyone else. Halachic converts are Jewish, their children are Jewish, they are obligated to fulfill the mitzvot like all other Jews.

Anyone who casts aspersions on the Jewish status of these converts is in violation of one of the most important laws in the Torah: not to oppress the convert.

Yet there are those who raise doubts about halachic converts. With a heavy heart, we note that modern Orthodoxy’s Rabbinical Council of America is doing just that. (The RCA is a national organization that includes in its ranks several hundred synagogue rabbis.) Indeed, new information that has come before us leads us to believe that Jews who were converted by RCA rabbis prior to its institution of a centralized conversion system in 2008 known as GPS (Geirus Policies and Standards) should beware – their conversions are now being questioned by the RCA itself. This affects not only them but their progeny as well.

Let us explain:

Prior to GPS, members of the RCA routinely convened a beth din, or Jewish court, and performed conversions. Converts who desired to marry in Israel would turn to the Chief Rabbinate there, through which all Israeli marriages are performed. To assure that an RCA rabbi’s conversion was valid, the Israeli Rabbinate would consult the RCA leadership to ascertain the conversion’s validity. The leadership of the RCA would pro forma verify that the RCA rabbis who performed the conversions were members in good standing, knowledgeable and reliable.

This would be good enough for the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. In America, too, when leaders of synagogues and day schools were unfamiliar with the converting rabbi, they would seek similar confirmation from the RCA.

As rabbis of large synagogues for many decades, scores of our conversions were approved over the years by RCA leadership. We know firsthand that there are countless other rabbis whose conversions were similarly approved.

This longstanding process was shattered when the Israeli Chief Rabbinate proclaimed in 2006 that even if an RCA rabbi’s conversion was confirmed by the RCA leadership, it would not be sufficient.

A few of us urged the RCA to challenge this decision. We urged the RCA to uphold the honor and integrity of its members and, more importantly, affirm the validity of their conversions. Regrettably, the RCA chose to “make peace” with the Chief Rabbinate by establishing the GPS system of centralized rabbinical courts in 2008. No longer would the RCA vouch for conversions performed by its members. Only those conducted by rabbis from the newly formed courts would be approved by the RCA.

In an article we wrote here in March 2008, we argued that the new system would raise questions concerning conversions done prior to GPS. It read: “What is most troubling is that conversions, done years ago with the informal backing of the RCA, are now being scrutinized. This, we believe, strikes at the very ethical fabric of halachah. Over the years, thousands of people have been halachically converted, and now they and their children, and for that matter their marriages, will all be questioned. The pain that this will cause the convert, a person whom the Torah commands to love, will be unbearable.”

The RCA, clearly stung by this criticism, responded a day later, dismissing our concerns.

“Public written statements over the last few days have raised questions regarding the status of conversions performed by RCA rabbis in the past, and whether all such converts would be subject to special re-evaluation or scrutiny by the RCA or by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate,” the organization wrote in a statement. “There is nothing in the RCA/GPS protocol for conversions that implies or states such a thing, and there was and is no intention to review or scrutinize, much less nullify, previous conversions. All conversions performed by RCA member rabbis that were considered valid in the past will continue to be considered valid in the future.” (Emphasis added.)

Rabbis Marc Angel, left, and Avi Weiss are co-founders of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. Photo courtesy of the IRF

Therefore, it was with deep pain that we read a statement issued recently by the current chairman of the GPS conversion program responding to media reports that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel had rejected several conversions done by leading Orthodox rabbis associated with the RCA beth din. The chairman explained that the RCA had an understanding with the Chief Rabbinate that all GPS conversions were valid. The conversions in question were performed prior to the creation of the GPS system, concerning which the Beth Din of America issued a ishur, a legal attestation, confirming their validity.

The statement went on to say that the RCA was taking “affirmative steps … in consultation with the office of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel to provide greater assurances to those who converted outside of the GPS network of Batei Din and received ishurim from the Beth Din of America.”

Summing up the RCA position, the chairman wrote: “The Rabbinical Council of America stands behind every GPS conversion as well as every ishur issued to converts by the Beth Din of America, and recognizes all such converts and their children to be an integral part of the Jewish people, no less than every other Jewish person, including the community of RCA Rabbis and our families.”

This statement makes the position of the RCA clear: It will not stand behind the conversions performed by its members prior to the establishment of the GPS system unless those conversions receive an ishur by the heads of the Beth Din of America.

This is a major deflection from the RCA’s prior promise. Conversions done prior to the GPS system never involved the RCA Beth Din. Now an ishur from the Beth Din of America is required. For the RCA, this ishur will not only be necessary to prove the bona fides of conversions for the Israeli Rabbinate, but for Orthodox synagogues and schools in America, as well.

One wonders what the Beth Din of America will require from the rabbi to issue the ishur. Will it investigate the religious bona fides — as they now define them — of every converting rabbi? How far will the court go back and how deep will it dig? There were RCA rabbis in the 1950s whose synagogues hosted mixed dances. There were rabbis who were sent by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the era’s revered leader of modern Orthodoxy, to mixed-seating congregations in the ’60s and ’70s. Will all of these conversions be invalidated?

And how about the convert? Will non-observance nullify the conversion retroactively? Suppose the convert seeking the ishur is no longer observant. Or suppose the convert’s grandson or granddaughter who is not observant is seeking the ishur. The RCA has a responsibility to be fully transparent and answer these questions.

Unfortunately, the concerns we expressed in 2008 were entirely valid. Any pre-GPS convert will not be pro forma accepted as a valid convert. If the Beth Din of America feels the convert does not meet its standards, for whatever reason, the ishur will not be issued.

With this development, many thousands of people who were converted by RCA rabbis and are fully halachic Jews are now having their status as Jews thrown into doubt. This is a great travesty. Converts with whom we have had contact feel betrayed.

Even RCA rabbis who support the GPS system should stand up with courage and vigorously demand that those who converted with RCA rabbis prior to the GPS system be recognized as the halachic Jews that they are – without an ishur from the beth din. Applying GPS standards to pre-GPS conversions that had previously been accepted is immoral. Members of the RCA must let their leadership know how disappointed and outraged they are by the RCA’s change of policy.

It must also be added that not only is the RCA casting doubt on conversions done prior to GPS, it is also sending a message that conversions done today by modern Orthodox rabbis outside of GPS are questionable. This is precisely what happened in the recent case of the highly respected Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of New York, when a conversion he performed outside of GPS was turned down by the Israeli Rabbinate, resulting in grave anguish not only to one of the great modern Orthodox rabbis of our time, but to the convert herself.

By invalidating halachic conversions, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate continues on the path of alienating the masses of Jews in Israel. In linking itself to the Chief Rabbinate, the RCA undermines its credibility as an honest broker relative to conversions, placing power politics ahead of its responsibility to the Jewish people.

Rabbis Avi Weiss and Marc Angel are co-founders of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. Angel is rabbi emeritus of the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue and founder of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals. He is also a past president of the RCA. Weiss is the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat.

Is kosher all or nothing?

Because of the many objections, most of them from Orthodox Jews, to my last column (“If You Don’t Eat Bacon, You Keep Kosher,” Aug. 5), and because the column was widely disseminated, I feel I owe readers a response to some of those objections.

Before I begin, I should point out that many Orthodox Jews agreed with what I wrote. But, as is well known, people who disagree are far more likely to express their opinions publicly than people who agree.

My primary argument, in a nutshell, was that even if a Jew only desists from eating the prohibited animals of the Torah, this Jew should be regarded as “keeping kosher” — just as one who gives less charity than Jewish law commands is usually regarded as a charitable Jew.

The most often made objection to this argument was that my charity comparison is invalid since halachah (Jewish law) does not require that a Jew give, as I had (apparently erroneously) written, a tenth of his income to charity. In fact, many noted, halachah doesn’t really require that a Jew give almost anything. As one responder wrote, “The law merely requires 1/3 shekel to tzedakah a year. Thus someone who donated $10 to tzedakah has fulfilled his legal obligation.”

This, I embarrassedly admit, was news to me. That on a moral issue as important as helping the poor and the sick, Judaism demands essentially nothing came as a surprise. On the other hand, it demonstrates that halachah is not the only way to achieve what God wants, given how charitable Jews have traditionally been.

But whether or not Judaism specifies the amount a Jew should give to tzedakah, my argument was this: We call a Jew “charitable” if he gives just about any tzedakah, but we do not say a Jew “keeps kosher” unless he keeps kosher in every detail.

This led one responder to write:

“I found the idea of the all or nothing in ritual but not in ethics really interesting!”

That is the issue I most wanted to raise: It is not good for Judaism that we view ritual law as all or nothing. That is why I wrote the column — not to have Jews “feel good about themselves,” as some wrote, or, even more amazingly, in order “to lead Jews to sin.”

I wrote it because “all or nothing” is intellectually and Jewishly counterproductive — it almost always leads to people doing nothing rather than doing all.

Think about it. In what areas of life would we really want to advocate all or nothing? 

If you were a passenger in a car going 10 miles per hour above the speed limit, would you say to the driver: “You know you are deliberately violating the traffic law; you are a lawbreaker, no different from someone driving 40 miles an hour above the speed limit”? 

Probably not.

Would you say to the driver: “You are entirely wrong to consider yourself a person who observes traffic laws”?

Again, probably not. 

And why not?

Because most of us recognize that in life “all or nothing” is usually absurd.

Over the course of 40 years, I have brought innumerable Jews to keeping kosher (including Orthodox levels of kashrut). And one of my most persuasive arguments has been that the moment a Jew declines to eat any food because he is a Jew, he is keeping kosher.

I never wrote that a Jew who only refrains from eating Torah-prohibited animals keeps “fully” kosher. I don’t use the word “fully” with regard to kashrut, or Shabbat, or any other Jewish law, including ethical laws. The term is worse than useless; it is damaging.

As one Orthodox rabbi, Ephraim Epstein, the senior rabbi at Congregation Sons of Israel in New Jersey, commented on the Jewish Journal website: “We would do much better if we threw away our FRUMometers and did away with the urges to assess levels of other people’s religiosity. …”

Let me end with a story that illustrates how powerful not using “all or nothing” is to bringing Jews to observance of kashrut (and other Jewish laws).

One day, many years ago, I was eating in Factor’s deli in the Pico-Robertson section of Los Angeles, when out of nowhere a woman approached me and said: “You have no idea how important it is for me to see you eating here. I heard you make the case for keeping kosher, and you persuaded me. But I still didn’t think I could do it because I knew I wouldn’t restrict myself to eating only in kosher restaurants. Now that I see that you can eat in a regular restaurant and still keep kosher, I will start keeping kosher.”

Did I cause that woman to sin? Or to keep kosher?

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (

I believe in Torah, halachah and equality

On June 26, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that it is unconstitutional for a state to ban same-sex marriage. The issue still divides America, though the latest Pew Research Center survey numbers say 54 percent of Americans favor gay marriage, and only 36 percent oppose it.

In the Orthodox Jewish community, the matter is far less polarizing. I could not find any actual numbers, but I think most people are correct in assuming that the vast majority of Orthodox Jews oppose same-sex marriage for themselves and for the United States. All of the mainstream Orthodox Jewish umbrella organizations have issued statements over the past few years reiterating this opposition. Some Orthodox Jews are ambivalent on the issue, and a small minority is in favor of gay marriage.

I celebrate the Supreme Court decision.

A lot of people are confused at how an Orthodox rabbi who follows the Torah and its laws could celebrate the legalization of gay marriage.

I have been mocked, berated, insulted and even ousted from Orthodoxy for supporting marriage equality. I’ve been asked, respectfully and less respectfully, how I reconcile my belief in marriage equality and my religious beliefs.

This is my official response: Marriage equality is a civil rights issue. Gay people exist. They are your neighbors and co-workers. They might be your friends and family as well. It’s hard to be gay in America. There’s trauma involved. Gay people fall in love. They want to live together as a married couple. They want to get married for the same reasons everyone else wants to get married. Restricting consenting adults from a loving, committed marriage is a form of discrimination. I believe that discrimination is wrong. I believe that citizens of free countries should not feel oppressed. I believe that more freedom for more people is a good thing for everyone, including Orthodox Jews.

Of course, I am concerned about the implications of the ruling. I am concerned about clergy with religious objections to officiating a gay marriage, but those personal concerns cannot trump the more basic civil rights of others, especially people who typically suffer persecution and discrimination.

I am not concerned that America is becoming a Godless state with no morals. If you want equal rights and protection under the law, everyone else must benefit, too. It is wrong to suggest that equality applies unevenly. George Orwell said it best in “Animal Farm”: “All animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” It is moral to be fair to others, even if those others are people who violate your religious beliefs. There are competing morals in this case, and America is choosing the more compassionate and the more just of the moral options.

Marriage equality is a good thing. I celebrate marriage equality. I am also an Orthodox Jew, and I will not perform a religious ceremony that is not recognized by my religion as valid, including a gay marriage. Those two statements are not contradictory.

There is a long list of things that I think are very important to Orthodox Judaism. Banning gay marriage is near the bottom of the list. Kindness, compassion and fairness are near the top of the list.

I understand that many Orthodox Jews have visceral fears about gay marriage because of Jewish law. I hope we can get past those fears and move forward toward understanding
and love.

Eliyahu Fink is an Orthodox rabbi, writer, and teacher in Beverly Hills and online at A version of this article was originally published on

Immigration bill: For nannies and caregivers, legal status isn’t enough

At 2 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, Amelia Barnachea waited in a copy shop in downtown Los Angeles, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. “I’m exercising,” the diminutive Filipina-American home health aide explained, looking very spry for her 72 years. 

Barnachea, who officially retired years ago, had spent the previous 18 hours filling in for a friend who was responsible for an ailing white woman only a few years Barnachea’s senior. 

Barnachea said she’d been awake almost the entire time. 

“I had to feed her. The place was dirty, so I had to clean. I had to cook something for her to eat,” Barnachea said. “That’s the work of an aide.”

Domestic work is often fluid, and the treatment of workers varies depending on their bosses. But federal laws that grant basic protections to almost all other workers in the United States — minimum wage requirements, for instance, and laws governing overtime pay — don’t apply to elder-care workers like Barnachea. Some workers don’t even get a standard meal break.

“Right now, some of our members have to pull food out of their pockets and eat whenever they can,” said Aquilina Soriano, executive director of the Pilipino Workers Center of Southern California. “There are some employers who don’t want them to sit down even for a moment.”

[Related: The proposed reforms, rights and regulations]

On June 27, the U.S. Senate approved an immigration bill that would bring 11 million people living illegally in the United States out from the shadows; should it become law, the bill would grant provisional legalized status to millions of people, including hundreds of thousands of domestic workers, offering them a path to citizenship. Legalized status would also bring with it other concrete benefits, including the ability to visit family members abroad and to get a driver’s license.

Activists aren’t popping champagne yet, as it’s not clear whether the Republican-controlled House of Representatives will pass similar legislation and allow the Senate’s bill to take effect. What’s more, advocates for domestic workers’ rights are also acutely aware that even if the Senate bill were to become law, without additional changes to existing state laws and federal regulations newly legalized domestic workers could still find themselves stuck working in a shadow economy. 

“Should immigration reform be enacted into law, it will be a tremendously positive change in the lives of these people and for our country,” said Hadar Susskind, director of Bend the Arc Jewish Action, who also runs the progressive Jewish group’s political action committee. “At the same time, home care workers who are here legally, or are citizens, face a huge array of challenges.” 

Rabbi Heather Miller, center, sounds a shofar at a 24-hour vigil that began on June 26, one day before the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform legislation. Photo by Dan Kacvinski

’The standards are basically not governed by law’

Bend the Arc was one of a number of Jewish groups actively lobbying for passage of the Senate version of comprehensive immigration reform. Others include the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which has devoted significant resources to organizing Jews behind immigration reform and published a handbook in 2012 titled “Immigration Reform: A Jewish Issue?” In it, AJC invokes economics, national security and demographic power politics to make the case that Jews should get behind reform. 

To persuade Jews to get involved with an issue that will mostly benefit non-Jews, the AJC brochure also leans heavily on the Jewish history of immigration to the United States and on biblical and talmudic texts. 

Yet while immigration reform advocates ask Jews to think about what today’s laws might have meant for their grandparents and great-grandparents a century ago, domestic workers’ rights advocates are asking Jews to consider what today’s laws mean for the people who clean their homes, care for their children and look out for their aging parents.

U.S. labor law doesn’t do much to protect domestic workers. Household employers are explicitly exempted from laws that apply in other workplaces, and where laws do exist they regularly go unheeded and unenforced. 

“The standards are basically not governed by law,” said Kevin Kish, director of the employment rights project for the legal aid nonprofit Bet Tzedek. “They’re governed by community standards.”

Over the years, Bet Tzedek has represented victims of the most egregious abuse — including one woman brought from Peru to Los Angeles by a professor as a housekeeper. The professor then confiscated her passport and forbade her from leaving the house, then beat her and threatened her family. When the worker made efforts to contact Bet Tzedek, her employer attempted to get her deported back to Peru. 

[Related: Modern slavery — Answering the cry]

Such stories of brutality toward domestic workers are rare, but the lesser abuses also add up: Those who work behind the closed doors of private homes typically earn low wages and rarely receive the benefits afforded other employees. They also work in environments that can be hazardous, and they must endure abuses of power with little recourse to act. 

These were the findings of the Center for Urban Economic Development (CUED) at the University of Illinois at Chicago in its 2012 survey of more than 2,000 nannies, housecleaners and caregivers in 14 cities across the United States. Thirty-five percent of workers reported working long hours with no breaks, nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of the workers surveyed reported being paid less than minimum wage ($8 an hour in California), and only 9 percent reported having a written contract with their employers. Nineteen percent of workers said they had been subjected to threats or verbal abuse on the job. 

Undocumented domestic workers, who made up 36 percent of the survey’s respondents, were markedly worse off than their counterparts. Median wages for those without legal status were found to be 17 percent lower than those of U.S. citizens employed in households.

The survey results suggest that even household employers who adhere to the models of common practice in their communities may in fact be breaking existing laws. 

Although there’s no way of documenting this, it’s commonly believed that the overwhelming majority of household employers — some estimate between 80 and 95 percent — do not pay taxes on wages paid to household employees. Indeed, fewer than 9 percent of the domestic workers surveyed by CUED in 2012 reported that their employers pay into Social Security on their behalf. 

And while current California law does not require that caregivers get breaks or overtime pay, some household employees — including housekeepers — are entitled to such benefits.

Nevertheless, Kish said, many employers ignore these laws as well. 

’These people, their lives depend upon this wage’

Lately, some Jewish communities have been devoting increased attention to this issue. Last month, Bet Tzedek’s Kish participated in a conversation with Rav Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea about what California law and Jewish law require of employers vis-à-vis their household employees. 

On some subjects — the prompt payment of wages, for instance — Jewish law is unambiguous. 

“These people, their lives depend upon this wage, and that’s why you have to be so particular — so machmir (stringent), really — about making sure that you’re paying people on time,” Kanefsky told a reporter, a few weeks after he covered the topic at a Shabbat afternoon program on June 1. 

This commandment can be traced back to a verse in Deuteronomy: “Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it.” Yet the 2012 survey found that 23 percent of household employees said they had been paid late on at least one occasion in the past year. Ten percent said that during that same period, they had been paid less than what they were owed — or nothing at all. 

Kanefsky also took on a more nuanced question: From the standpoint of halachah (Jewish law), when may an employer cancel an agreement to engage an employee’s services? 

The Talmud addresses this in terms of agricultural workers, but Kanefsky applied the biblical text to the present day. If a parent comes home early from work and wants to send the nanny home, Kanefsky told me that halachah requires the full day’s wages be paid to the worker. If a family goes on vacation and expects an employee to be available for them upon their return, they have “some degree of financial obligation” to that employee for the wages that would have been paid during that time. 

“The only circumstance under which the employer is not committed to pay the wage,” Kanefsky said, “is if, (a) what happened is a completely unpredictable ’act of God’ and the employer did everything in his or her power to ensure that the work would be there, and (b) that the person didn’t commence work.”

Interestingly, Kanefsky said that he and his congregants agreed in advance that they would not address questions of immigration. 

“At least for our first go-round, we felt that we wanted to talk about the issues that people would come and engage with and not with issues that they would be squirming in their seats about,” Kanefsky said. 

Nonetheless, Bet Tzedek’s Kish, who is not Jewish, said he was surprised by the high standard for behavior Kanefsky espoused to the 40 members of his congregation who attended the program in early June.  

When employers and domestic workers hash out their responsibilities to one another, Kish said, “A lot of the negotiation doesn’t refer to law or what’s written in the labor code. It’s, ’What do your friends do? What does your family do? What do people in your community do?’ “

’Be a mensch’

It’s not clear how many Jews are asking such questions at all. Rabbi Jonathan Rosenberg of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, the largest Orthodox synagogue in the San Fernando Valley, said that the questions his congregants ask about domestic workers are focused less on wages and more often concern questions about “what a non-Jewish worker inside the home is allowed to do with regard to matters of observance.” 

Rabbi Jonathan Bernhard of Adat Ari El, a Conservative synagogue in Valley Village, said he has been asked by congregants — infrequently — what Jewish tradition has to say about domestic employees. Most of the time, he said, they’re not asking about immigration issues, even if they are employing people who don’t have authorization to work in this country. 

Those who do come with questions, Bernhard said, mostly want to talk about wages and vacations, and, in his experience, most appear to “already know the answers” to the questions they’re asking.

“What I would say is, ’Look, be a mensch. Now we have to figure out what that looks like in this situation,’ ” he said. “But that’s really what they’re looking for. They want to be a mensch.”

Such rabbinic guidance may be sufficient for individual cases, but domestic workers and the activists working on their behalf are trying to broaden accountability among employers and inject more specificity into these kinds of discussions. The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, introduced by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), was developed with input from household employees and would grant certain basic rights to domestic workers that they don’t have at present. 

“Right now, nannies and caregivers do not have the right to overtime pay, do not have the right to meals and rest breaks,” Soriano of the Pilipino Workers Center said. “This creates the situation where they are working around the clock and being compensated very little.”

Soriano’s group is a member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), which has been advocating for bills of rights for domestic workers in a number of states, including California. Other Jewish and interfaith groups, including the L.A.-based Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, have gotten involved in these state-specific efforts, as well. 

NDWA, together with Bend the Arc and the New York-based Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, are members of the Caring Across Generations movement, which is pushing President Barack Obama to approve new regulations formulated by the Department of Labor that will extend minimum wage and overtime protections to home care workers. 

Photo by Dan Kacvinski

Ammiano’s bill, AB 241, would grant to California’s domestic workers these and a handful of other rights. On May 29, the California Assembly voted 45-25 to approve the bill; the State Senate’s Industrial and Labor Relations Committee also approved the bill in a hearing on the bill on June 26. 

It’s the second time the legislation is making its way through Sacramento; in 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, citing concerns about the “economic and human impact” of the bill on those who are cared for by domestic workers. 

Should the State Senate pass the bill and the governor sign it — and Carlos Alcala, Ammiano’s communications director, said it’s hard to predict which way Brown will go on this issue — California would join New York and Hawaii in adopting an explicit bill of rights for domestic workers. 

Each one of those bills has its own particular language and protections. The Hawaii law specifically protects breastfeeding employees against discrimination; the California bill introduced in the last legislative session granted workers permission to use the kitchen in the home “without charge or deduction from pay.”

“That would be a little problematic for us,” said Irving Lebovics, chair of the California branch of Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox advocacy organization. As written, the law looked as though it might have compelled Orthodox employers to allow employees to use their kosher kitchens. 

Language was added to the bill the first time around, Lebovics said, that exempted employers with specific food allergies or dietary restrictions from allowing their workers to use their kitchens. That language has been replicated in the current bill. 

As for the question of how non-Jewish workers should eat in kosher-observant households, Lebovics called it a “non-issue.” 

“We’ll go the extra mile to make sure they have what to eat,” he said. “If somebody wants something that’s not kosher, they’re free to eat it. Just not inside the house.”

But what some Orthodox Jews see as a non-issue appears to have been experienced by some domestic workers as an insult. 

One afternoon last month, I listened as a number of domestic workers, including some who have worked for Jewish families, spoke about their experiences. They all said they feel particularly vulnerable — either because they are not in this country legally or because they feared for their jobs and for future employment — and all asked that their names not be included in this article. One, who I’ll call L, recalled an unpleasant experience with the Jewish family that employed her mother in the 1990s. 

The mother in this family didn’t just prohibit L’s mother from eating non-kosher food in the house, but extended the ban into the backyard. L had been visiting her mother at the time, and she told me she remembered watching as her mother’s Jewish employer snatched food away from them, threw it across the backyard, and then forced L’s mother to go clean it up. 

Another woman told me that she had heard stories of domestic workers being forced by their kosher-observant Jewish employers to eat their lunches outside, or in the family’s garage.

Whether these anecdotes represent common practice among observant Jewish employers is impossible to ascertain, but Rabbi Nachman Abend, associate director at the Chabad of North Hollywood for the past seven years, said he hadn’t heard of any situations in which employees perceived kosher laws as insulting. 

“I would say most people respect religion, and most people, if you take the time to explain it to them, not only do they not take offense, but they appreciate it very much,” Abend said. 

’I almost cried. It had been so long since I had heard any words of appreciation.’

Abend’s own family employs a domestic worker — he and his wife have five children, including twin babies — and when he gets questions from members of his community, he offers guidance not so much from Jewish law but from his own practice. 

“I don’t know if they’re asking me as a Jewish legal authority or as a rabbi, friend and mentor,” Abend said. “I give general advice. So if somebody asks me if they should pay their nanny for July 4, or whatever national holiday is coming up, I say, ’I do.’ “

This question — how should a person treat his mother’s caregiver or her child’s nanny? — appears to be on the minds of many people these days, and on the minds of Jews, in particular. 

A parents group in a wealthy neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., has been conducting annual surveys of “nanny compensation” that cover everything from the range of hourly wages to whether “major Jewish holidays” are paid holidays for nannies. 

Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Association, a group started in 2010 by (mostly Jewish) employers of nannies, caregivers and housekeepers, issued guidelines to help other domestic employers foster “dignified and respectful working conditions” in their homes. 

So I asked Soriano, whose group represents more than 600 Filipina caregivers and other domestic employees, what advice she would give to domestic employers looking to be good bosses. First, Soriano urged employers to value their employee’s time, and to understand the power imbalance between employees and their employers. 

“Sometimes,” she continued, “when an employer is asking an employee to work, it’s not easy for the domestic worker to say no — even if they have other obligations at that time.”

Soriano went on: “It’s really about how they’re treated, as well. They’re not servants; they’re whole human beings, with families. If they’re being treated as if they’re not a whole person a lot of the time, I know from our members that really makes them feel bad.”

One of the domestic workers who spoke with me earlier this month, whom I’ll call S, said she had once quit a job she didn’t like, but it was only after her next employer thanked her for work she had done that she realized how unhappy she had been while working for her prior boss. 

“I almost cried,” S said. “It had been so long since I had heard any words of appreciation.”

Nothing in California’s proposed domestic worker’s bill of rights entitles a worker to receive thanks from her employer. But the bill would require employers to pay overtime and grant meal and rest breaks to all of their domestic employees. And while there’s no guarantee that  this new law will be followed any more widely than the existing ones, activists feel hopeful that the bill of rights could function as a starting point to educate domestic employers about how to treat their workers. 

Amelia Barnachea is working on the effort to pass the bill of rights in California. But just before she headed home for some (long-overdue) rest, she offered a philosophical explanation of what makes for a good working relationship. 

“If there is love and care [between an aide and her patient], you can work for a long time,” she said. “If there is none of those, just money, you can’t stay long. You cannot work for money alone.”

Women of the word: Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)

On a recent trip to New York, I spent Shabbat morning at The Jewish Center in Manhattan, a vibrant Modern Orthodox community. As services came to a close, the 500 congregants did not make the typical mad rush for the door. Instead, everyone remained seated, anxiously waiting to hear scholar-in-residence Tova Manzel. 

A recognized expert in halachah (Jewish law), she does not hold the title rabbi, yet has as much — and in many cases, much more — knowledge of Talmud, halachah and rabbinic literature than many who hold that title. She is a learned Orthodox woman from Israel who holds the title yoetzet halachah (halachic adviser). She spent many years in batei midrash (Torah study halls) studying halachah at a high level, earning certification to address issues in halachah. 

Hundreds of Orthodox congregants gathering to hear a female expert in halachah is not something that would have happened just 25 years ago, and the modern-day credit goes to Rabbanit Chana Henkin of Nishmat. But the ancient predecessors to the contemporary yoatzot halachah are rooted in the Torah. Their names are Mahla, Noa, Hogla, Milka and Tirza, the daughters of Zelophehad.

Upon the death of their father, these five brave women “stood before Moses, Elazar the Kohen, the chieftains, and the entire congregation at the entrance to the Tent of the Meeting” (Numbers 27:2). They had a personal claim and a halachic question: “Our father died in the wilderness … and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a portion [of inheritance] among our father’s kinsmen” (Numbers 27:3-4).

The Talmud (Baba Batra 119:b) teaches that this scene took place in a beit midrash, where Moses was teaching the halachot of yibbum (levirate marriage). The laws of levirate marriage state: “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies, and he has no child, the wife of the dead shall not be married abroad unto one that is not of his kin; her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother unto her” (Deuteronomy 25:5).

In light of this halachah (the Talmud says), Zelophehad’s daughters raised a creative halachic question to Moses: “We are instead of a son, and if females are not considered offspring, let our mother be taken in levirate marriage by her brother-in-law.”

“The daughters of Zelophehad were learned, were halachic interpreters and were righteous,” says the Talmud, prompting Moses to bring their claim before God.

What did God think of all this? 

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Zelophehad’s daughters speak justly. You shall certainly give them a portion of inheritance along with their father’s brothers, and you shall transfer their father’s inheritance to them” (Numbers 27:6-7).

Rashi expounds on these verses: “They spoke rightly. Their claim is beautiful and proper. Their eyes perceived that which the eyes of Moses did not.”

Rashi further adds that this portion of the Torah belongs to them: “This section of the Torah should have been written through Moses, but [due to their brilliant exposition of halachah] the daughters of Zelophehad merited to have it written through them.” I shudder to think how Rashi would be treated were he to write this today.

Zelophehad’s daughters prompted a halachah l’dorot, a halachic ruling for all generations, as God says: “Speak to the children of Israel saying: If a man dies and has no son, you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter” (Numbers 27:8). 

The trailblazing spirit of Zelophehad’s daughters ultimately led to bold halachic rulings among certain posekim (halachic decisors), especially in the modern Sephardic rabbinic world. These rulings are instrumental sources that helped create the contemporary yoatzot halachah.

Rabbi Ben-Zion Hai Uziel (1880-1953), Israel’s first Sephardic Chief Rabbi, ruled that it is halachically permitted to elect women to municipal councils in Israel. 

Rabbi Haim David Halevy (1924-1998), the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, concluded that women are permitted to serve as dayanot (halachic judges).

Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron (b. 1941), Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi during the 1990s, authored a bold halachic responsa that concluded: “A woman can serve as a leader, even as a great Torah scholar of the generation. A woman can serve as a halachic decisor and teach Torah and halachic rulings” (Binyan Av Responsa, Vol. 1, No. 65).

The title of Manzel’s lecture at The Jewish Center was: “Evolution or Revolution: Women in Halachic Leadership.” Certainly in the modern Jewish world, the yoatzot halachah, along with the bold aforementioned halachic rulings, are a major revolution. But if you asked Mahla, Noa, Hogla, Milka and Tirza, they would probably wonder what took us so long.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center, an international organization with its own historic campus in the Old City of Jerusalem. Follow Rabbi Bouskila’s new blog, Through Sephardic Lenses, at

Eruv is up for shabbat

After being disrupted by construction on the 405 Freeway, the Los Angeles Community Eruv is back in operation, according to Howard Witkin, a community member who oversees the eruv’s maintenance.

This should be welcome news to observant Jews living within the eruv, which is roughly bounded by the 405 to the west, the 10 to the south, the 101 to the north and Western Avenue and the 101 to the east. 

An eruv makes carrying items within its boundaries on Shabbat permissible for Jews, according to halachah (Jewish law). During the Shabbat that began on June 14, the Los Angeles Community Eruv ( was down because a few hundred feet of fencing had been removed due to 405 construction at the on- and off-ramps at Wilshire Boulevard. Any break in an eruv renders it non-kosher.

In Pico-Robertson, a neighborhood with a high concentration of observant families, some synagogues were noticeably emptier, and strollers were few and far between on June 15, when the eruv was down. A number of mothers did not go to synagogue, staying home with their younger children — pushing strollers on Shabbat is not permitted unless it is done within an eruv’s boundaries.  

In advance of this coming Shabbat, Witkin told the Journal that the affected fencing will be routed around the construction and connected with the rest of the eruv.

Can Halachah ever be wrong?

Many years ago, one of the most respected Orthodox rabbis of our generation, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat, told me the following story — and, of course gave me permission to tell it in his name.

He was still living in the United States and was looking for a rosh yeshiva (a dean) for a yeshiva he was starting. When the selection process had narrowed the applicants to 10 highly learned young talmidei chachamim (scholars), he interviewed each of them. First, he had them read and explain a particularly difficult portion of the Talmud. Each one passed that part of the interview handily.

Then he asked them a question: Suppose you ordered an electric shaver from a store owned by non-Jews, and by accident the store sent you two shavers. Would you return the second shaver?

Nine said they would not. One said he would.

What is critical to understand is why they answered the way they did. The nine who would not return the second shaver were not crooks. They explained that halachah (Jewish law) forbade them from returning the other shaver. According to halachah, as they had been taught it, a Jew is forbidden to return a lost item to a non-Jew. The only exception is if the non-Jew knows a Jew found the item and not returning it would cause anti-Semitism or a Khilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name). The one who said he would return it gave that very reason — that it would be a Khilul Hashem if he didn’t return it and could be a Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) if he did. But he, too, did not believe he was halachically bound to return the shaver.

The nine were not wrong, and they were not taught wrong. That is the halachah. Rambam (Maimonides) ruled that a Jew is permitted to profit from a non-Jew’s business error.

This same subject came up recently in talking with a rosh yeshiva of a “black hat” yeshiva, a good and decent man, who defended this halachah in order to make the point that it is halachah — not “humanity,” as he termed it, or common sense, or conscience — that determines what is right.

I do not write any of this with any agenda beyond the title question: Can halachah ever be wrong? My high regard for the Orthodox community is well known.

But the number of laws that seem wrong and/or irrational is too large for anyone worried about Judaism’s future not to be concerned. If Rabbi Riskin were not concerned, he would not have told me the shaver story.

Halachah bans men from listening to a woman’s voice because it deems it sexually stimulating (literally, a form of nakedness). Last week, in Israel, the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Air Force, Lt. Col. Moshe Ravad, tendered his resignation from a program that integrates ultra-Orthodox soldiers into the Israeli army. The rabbi’s announcement was in response to the army’s decision not to excuse religious soldiers from military events in which women sing (they were excused from entertainment events). About a week prior to that, Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Elon Moreh, said that if the army insists that all soldiers attend official events with women singing, “You have to leave those events even if there’s a firing squad outside, and you’ll be shot to death.” Better for a halachic Jew to die than to hear a male-female chorus sing “Hatikvah”?

This news item was reported around the world. It did not bring glory to Judaism.

Finally, given that I believe that the Torah is from God and that the Jews are the Chosen People, and because I have values similar to Orthodox Jews, I am often asked why I am not Orthodox. My standing-on-one-leg response consists of three Hebrew words: Yom Tov Sheni. That’s not my only reason, but it’s shorthand for rabbinic law not changing.

The Torah commands us to observe Passover for seven days — an important number, since seven symbolizes Creation — but the rabbis added a day (Yom Tov Sheni) for Jews living in the Diaspora, because at one time Jews outside of Israel were not certain of the calendar. Though we have been certain for thousands of years, the added day has remained (though there was never a day added to Yom Kippur, which leads one to believe that the calendar was always known).

It would seem that one of these laws is immoral (not returning an item to a non-Jew) and the others irrational. But we have long been in a period in which rabbinic, that is, man-made, halachah just cannot change. We are told that we are not on the moral or spiritual level of previous generations (I have no idea on what basis this claim can be made — the generation that was present at Sinai was on a considerably lower level than many Jews today) and that there is no halachic authority that would be able to change halachah (which simply restates the problem).

The great Orthodox theologian, the late Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, called his fellow Orthodox Jews “Karaites of the Oral Law.” By that he meant that just as the Karaites were literalists regarding Torah law, the Orthodox became literalists of the Oral Law. Was he right?

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (

Shh! Don’t talk about sex at Yeshiva University

It wasn’t your typical college sex scandal. There were no accusations of molestation, inappropriate faculty-student relationships or date rape charges.

Instead, the precipitating incident was the publication by a student-run newspaper of a female student’s first-person account of a premarital sexual encounter.

But this is Yeshiva University, an Orthodox institution where the campuses for men and women are separated by approximately 10 miles, and the story’s publication in the YU Beacon newspaper prompted an intense, open discussion of a topic normally considered taboo in this conservative college community.

Following a cascade of negative comments by online readers of the piece, titled “How Do I Even Begin To Explain This?” the student council elected to withdraw its funding from the newspaper and several editors resigned. Meanwhile, stories about the clash between freedom of expression and fealty to Orthodox Judaism’s emphasis on modesty appeared in news outlets such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

Yeshiva University officials issued a statement noting that the decision about de-funding the Beacon was made by students, but Y.U. officials declined to be interviewed by JTA about sexual health practices at the school.

The university’s reticence to talk publicly about student sexual activity extends beyond the pages of student publications. A review of the Health & Wellness section of the school’s website found no discussion of contraception or other relevant information, and several students—including the anonymous author—said the school had not provided them with any sort of orientation on health issues related to sexual activity.

That’s not to say student health services doesn’t provide students with guidance or resources—it does—but the university’s low-key approach to sexual health issues stands in stark contrast to the approach of many U.S. colleges.

“The information should be available,” said Lisa Maldonado, the executive director of the New York-based Reproductive Health Access Project. “If you look at the data of who is having the most unintended pregnancies, it’s young women in their 20s.”

Sarah Lazaros, 21, a senior at YU’s Stern College for Women, said it’s clear why Yeshiva doesn’t have such material available online.

Having information on the website “would go against a lot of what the university stands for, which is total devotion to Jewish law. A lot of potential students would see that and not come to the university,” Lazaros said. “I think the main reason is that they don’t want to encourage these behaviors.”

Several YU students interviewed by JTA said it’s a mistake to pretend that the university’s students are not sexually active.

The sex essay “addresses something that we don’t often talk about in the Orthodox Jewish community, especially at YU,” Simi Lampert, 22, the Beacon’s editor, told JTA.

The Beacon, an independent, online newspaper launched in January by students at Yeshiva’s men’s and women’s colleges, will continue to publish, albeit without funding from the student council.

Lampert said she saw the story’s publication as an opportunity to start a conversation about sex among YU students.

“You have someone like me who went to a coed high school, has had boyfriends and has no intention of waiting until marriage for intercourse,” said S.B., a freshman at Stern who, like others interviewed for this story, asked to be identified only by her initials. “I don’t think anyone should go around denying that there are students having sex because that is not reality.”

The author of the Beacon story, a 20-year-old Stern student with the initials L.P., said her essay was true. She said she penned the piece, which was published in the literary section, where fiction and nonfiction appear, to help resolve her own complicated feelings about the experience.

“I was really kind of distraught about the whole thing,” L.P. said, her voice cracking.

Maintaining the appearance of the typical Orthodox Stern girl, L.P. said she felt like she could not talk to her friends about her night in the hotel room.

“It’s not like it was expected of me by how I dress,” she said. “I wear skirts. I do that whole song and dance.”

L.P. complained that the culture of the Orthodox institution makes it difficult to take effective safeguards when engaging in intercourse. When her period was late in coming after her sexual encounter, L.P. said she was worried about pregnancy even though she and her partner had used contraception.

Panicked, she went to Stern’s Health & Wellness Center, where she said she was counseled nonjudgmentally and asked for and received a pregnancy test.

“They’ll have a conversation with you about sex,” she said. “They’ll talk to you about the risks of being sexually active.”

Responding to a JTA inquiry about the contraceptive and counseling options available to students, YU’s senior director of media relations, Mayer Fertig, referred to the website of the Health & Wellness center. The site does not list contraceptives, Plan B or pregnancy tests as an available resource, unlike the websites of other major universities, and students say that Stern College doesn’t explicitly inform students that there are pregnancy tests and counseling about sexually transmitted infection available in the university system.

“From what I know, there is no information that has been made very accessible in terms of contraception, rape or pregnancy,” S.B. said.

Many Stern students hail from Orthodox institutions and thus are unlikely to have picked up knowledge about condom usage, pregnancy or the risks of disease transmission from their high schools.

Tamar, a senior at Stern who asked that her last name not be used, said she could recall just one event in her three years on campus in which women’s sexuality and health was discussed. As for contraceptives, she said, “It’s not something that’s talked about.”

Lazaros, a women’s studies major, said that a student-run women’s studies society on campus once brought a sex therapist to the college to speak. She also said the Health & Wellness Center does not provide a broad spectrum of services, probably because of limited demand and the school’s small size.

While L.P.’s essay did not go into much detail about the sexual encounter, several YU students described how their friends at the school attempt to skirt the Orthodox ban on premarital intercourse by being sexually active in others ways.

M.H., 27, who graduated from Yeshiva College in 2007, told JTA that he engaged in oral sex with girls from Stern and talked with friends about their similar exploits.

“I know that they were definitely hooking up—oral sex, kissing, touching,” he said. “I found that it was much harder to get a religious girl to actually have sexual intercourse because they place a premium on virginity.”

In public, at least, the rule at Yeshiva remains unchanged, students say.

“I know couples that behind closed doors, they’ll cuddle or they’ll make out,” L.P. said. “But when it comes to sitting in the student lounge, they sit five feet apart.”

Gina Nahai: Staying true to our own heritage

I once wrote a novel about an Iranian Jewish woman who grows wings and flies away from her husband’s home. She escapes because she’s in love with another man, and she believes it’s better to abandon her family than to stay and shame them by having an illicit affair. A few months after the book was released, I overheard someone — an Iranian Jew who happened to be very observant and very trusted by Iranians and Ashkenazim alike — remark that the novel had no merit because it was based on an impossible premise. I braced myself for a comment about the implausibility of a woman growing wings and flying off a window ledge like a migrating bird. Instead, the gentleman went on to assert that the really improbable proposition was that any Iranian Jewish woman would ever, under any circumstances and for any reason, contemplate an extramarital affair. 

Now, God knows I’m no expert in Iranian Jewish history, but I’ve seen a thing or two in my time, and I can say without equivocation that by far the majority of our women are, and have always been, impeccably chaste, unfailingly faithful and indefinitely devoted to their spouses. I’m not saying this just to keep up appearances before our friendly American neighbors or to avoid being banished from all Iranian parties forever. I’m saying it because it’s true. Nevertheless, I believe it’s possible that, over the course of our 2,500-year history, one of our women has committed an indiscretion of the kind depicted in the book. What fascinated me about the gentleman’s remark, therefore, was not so much his faith in our women’s piety, as his manifest conviction that there are areas of human nature and behavior that remain, to this day, entirely closed to Iranian Jews.

I realize that’s not a terribly uncommon assumption for a Jew to make about other Jews. Just as the world holds us to a different standard, so do we hold, if not ourselves, then each other, to a higher code of ethics. I grew up hearing about a multitude of acts that were the exclusive domain of Muslims and Christians and Zoroastrians and Buddhists and basically anyone at all except for Jews. Murder was one. Adultery (for women) was another. Theft on a grand, gluttonous and unabashed scale was yet another.

According to all the Jewish adults in my Iranian childhood, Jews did not kill, sleep with anyone but their husband, or steal from their friends, neighbors and random old ladies because:

A. They were bound by a higher calling — halachah — than your average penal code.
B. They lived in a country where, by law, the entire Jewish community was held responsible, and would be punished, for the indiscretions of each of its members. And
C. They belonged to a culture in which a person’s good name and reputation was his greatest asset, where his or her children would be duly rewarded or punished for his or her actions, where “shame” was a penance greater than any jail sentence and more exacting than poverty, illness or even death.

That, regrettably, was then.

I don’t know if things have remained the same in Iran, but I hope my fellow Iranian Jews in this country will forgive me for saying in print what we all know and lament in person — namely, that somewhere between Tehran and Los Angeles, some of us became more religiously observant and less personally righteous, more outspoken about the virtues of piety and less capable of feeling remorse, more able to circumvent the law and less fearful of public shame.

And I hope my fellow American Jews in this city will resist the urge to wag a holier-than-thou finger and indulge in the all-too-common tendency to blame the entire Iranian community for the sins of a few individuals. For one thing, that’s rather reminiscent of what the non-Jewish majority did to the Jewish minority in Iran, Russia and even in this country up until the 1950s. It wasn’t right then, and it’s not right now. More importantly, I dare say that Iranian Jews are as Jewish and as American as all the parents and grandparents of the current “native” population. Like us, your parents prized their American citizenship but continued to speak both English and their mother tongue. Like us, they ate both hot dogs and latkes, were made to feel unwelcome in fancy neighborhoods, and were suspected of committing all sorts of offenses, from building unattractive houses to taking over the world.

But I digress.

In the three decades since the revolution, Iranian Jews tried to embrace the best of Western culture while maintaining the positive aspects of their own. The jury’s still out on how well we’ve navigated those waters, but until recently, we were pretty confident that we had indeed gotten one thing right: We had re-created in America a community that, while far from perfect, had nurtured and strengthened us through many a difficult time. Outside our little bubble, the world was moving fast and memories were short, people reinvented themselves with impunity every few years, and nothing was wrong unless the law said so. But inside, we continued to harbor the notion that there were some things in this world a Jew just did not do.

We assumed, for example, that a Jew would not solicit “investments” from other Jews only to use the money to build himself a big, fancy house. Or that a Jew, especially a very observant one, would not empty the trust funds of orphan children into his own wife’s bank accounts. Or rob poor widows to enrich his already wealthy siblings. Or cheat his closest friends to finance his children’s education at expensive Jewish day schools.

We assumed all this with the kind of foolish certainty that had driven the gentleman critic to assert that a Jewish Iranian woman would sooner grow wings than indulge in pleasures of the flesh with a man she was not married to. We were, alas, proven wrong. On the heels of Bernie Madoff and all his lesser likenesses, Iranian Jews discovered their own batch of “toxic assets.” One of them, you may be amused to learn, was our resident literary critic.  In a single year, he and his fellow luminaries did to our community what a 1,000 years of being persecuted by the mullahs and 30 years of living outside Iran did not: They took from us the notion that Jews, especially very religious ones, observed a higher threshold of ethical behavior; that a good name had an inherent value that could not be measured in dollars.

If you can’t trust your own, whom can you trust? 

We are, today, a wounded and perplexed community. The old laws don’t apply, and the new ones don’t protect against Old World behavior. We cannot enter a deal with a handshake, then expect the courts to enforce what we didn’t deem necessary to put on paper. For us, the question is no longer what a Jew will and will not do; it’s what we, as a community, will and won’t tolerate. It’s whether our increasingly Orthodox rabbis will take a public stand against larceny in our own midst, or choose to look away. Whether our fellow Jews will buy and sell with other people’s money, or pass on profiting from ill-gotten gains. Whether we continue to protect the guilty with our silence and save our hate mail for the young Iranian Jewish reporter who relates the news as it happened in this publication. Instead of yelling at him to stop shaming our community by reporting other Jews’ misdeeds, we could, for example, yell at the wrongdoers and their accomplices and enablers.

It’s a funny thing about shame, you know: Those who are capable of feeling it are inevitably at a disadvantage against the rest. That’s always been in the case. There have always been people who chose wealth in disgrace over the simple honor of a life of hard work and sacrifices. In the old country, this was a real, almost permanent choice. “Everything dies,” the old Persian expression went, “except a name.”

But out here, where bootleggers’ children grow up to become president and a few million can get your name above a school or synagogue door, who’s to say that’s not a false choice? Commit the crime, weather the storm, then go out and purchase an even better name than you had before. The question, for our community, is whether we’ll go the American way and buy and sell a name as easily as a used car, or whether we’ll pause, and remember, and stay true to our own heritage.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

What is western society’s place in determining halachah?

The Orthodox community is rapidly approaching a moment of truth. The many issues that the Orthodox community is debating internally are rapidly collapsing into one overarching issue, one macro-question, with which it must grapple head-on. And this is: whether the ethical norms of Western society should figure into the process of determining halachah (Jewish law).

Consider the issues that have most roiled Orthodoxy just over the past year or so. There is the controversy over the statement of principles concerning the place of homosexuals within the Orthodox community, a document that while upholding the biblical prohibition on homosexual behavior, mandates that people who are homosexual be afforded full dignity and respect, and that they be included in their Orthodox communities. Signed by 150 Orthodox rabbis and educators, it was flatly rejected by at least as many. There is also the ongoing debate over whether women may serve as synagogue presidents, as well as the sure-to-return debate over women being ordained as rabbis. More recently, we have seen renewed controversy over whether halachah permits us to donate our organs following our brain-stem death, even as it is clear that we are permitted to receive organs from non-Jews who are brain-stem dead. And, most recently, we have witnessed the controversy in Israel as to whether halachah prohibits the sale or lease of apartments to non-Jews in the land of Israel. Each of these issues is complex in its own way, and none can be facilely decided in the absence of rigorous halachic analysis. But over and over again, the wedge issue turns out to be whether consideration of Western ethical norms is relevant to the analysis.

This emerged clearly last week, as the Rabbinical Council of America registered its objection to the ban on renting to non-Jews in Israel, saying that the halachic analysis of this issue demands “special sensitivity to societal realities, widely held ethical principles, and historical injustices.” Which is to say that when we examine our universe of viable halachic alternatives, our choice of alternative can and should be influenced by wider ethical considerations. Yet this is, of course, precisely the point of contention.

The story is the same with regard to the organ donation issue. Here, too, viable and scholarly halachic positions have existed on both sides of this issue for many decades. Last month though, a Rabbinical Council of America report (ironically), which preferred the position that effectively prohibits Jews from donating organs, elicited the following response from Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler, a prominent scholar and bio-ethicist (and a longtime proponent of the brain-stem definition of death, which results in the permissibility of organ donation): “Their final conclusion is that a Jew who is in need of a heart transplant can receive a heart from a brain-dead patient but he can’t donate his heart if he is brain dead. Such a ruling defames Judaism and exposes every Jew to the hatred of non-Jews. It is saying that a Jew can take a vital organ from a non-Jew even though Jews consider him still alive — that his life doesn’t count. How could you justify such a ruling?”

The wedge issue is the same when it comes to the place of homosexuals in the Orthodox community. The opening words of the above-referenced Statement of Principles are: “All human beings are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.” While it is of course true that the idea that all people are created in the image is biblical, its specific application to homosexuals is a distinctly modern historical development. It is our way of clothing in our religious language the modern, Western ethical assertion that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The relevance of such ideas to our halachic calculus is again what stands at the center of the controversy. Similarly, when rabbinic scholars in pre-State Palestine debated whether women ought to have the right to vote in Yishuv elections, the old/new “image of God” idea was one of the main pivots of the discussion. And it continues to play out in today’s controversies over the position of women in the Orthodox community.

Are the ethical norms of modern Western society essential to halachic discussion or are they irrelevant? Are they to be integrated or to be shunned? This is, in the final analysis, the central issue that the Orthodox community is grappling with. And the answer will determine Orthodoxy’s long-term viability as a positive force in the wider Jewish community, and the wider world.

Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Obligation or choice?

Were contributions toward the building of the Tabernacle voluntary or compulsory? Those of us who have stood before our communities during a building campaign have always tended to favor the latter option, as this makes for a more effective appeal. But the classical commentaries on the Torah — presumably more objective in their approach to the question — are rather evenly divided on it.

“Speak to the children of Israel that they take contributions for Me. From every person whose heart is moved by generosity, you shall take My contributions” (Exodus 25:2).

Rashi presumes this phrase to be indicating that all the donations were free-will offerings and that the Jewish people’s first capital campaign was entirely voluntary.

By contrast, there is a cluster of commentators who insist that this was not the case. Representative of this cluster is the relatively contemporary Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin of Volozhin. Based on logical considerations alone, he rules out the possibility that God was simply asking for voluntary contributions.

“And if Israel had not contributed voluntarily,” Netziv asks, “the Tabernacle would have been allowed to go unbuilt?!”

This is simply a non-starter for Netziv. In addition, he cites the normative ruling of halachah (Jewish law) that all members of the Jewish community may be compelled to contribute to the building of a synagogue, and wonders how the building of the Tabernacle could possibly have been any less so. He also points out that the Talmud derives the regulations governing compulsory tzedakah (charity) collection from the story of the building of the Tabernacle. Clearly, the Talmud assumed that Israelites in the desert were assessed, not appealed to. The critical phrase in the biblical text is not the one that Rashi emphasizes, Netziv contends. Rather it is the phrase, “that they take contributions.” God is instructing Moses to create the committee whose members would go from tent door to tent door, and — it’s hard to put this delicately — take.

An interesting twist on this age-old debate is presented by Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno of the 16th century. Like Netziv, Sforno accepts the notion that the phrase “that they take” implies the requirement to appoint official Tabernacle “collectors.” Curiously though, he then also goes on to hold up Rashi’s belief that it was voluntary and arrives at the slightly tortured conclusion that contrary to the rule of all later such community collectors, those who labored on behalf of the Tabernacle project were to take voluntary contributions only. For whatever it may lack in interpretive elegance, Seforno’s dogged determination to preserve the voluntary quality of the contributions to the Tabernacle is impressive. The question of course is why he (like Rashi) was so absolutely convinced that it had to be a voluntary system. What makes them so certain that God would not have had it any other way?

The key to the answer may, paradoxically, be Netziv’s most powerful counterargument: “And if Israel had not contributed voluntarily, the Tabernacle would have been allowed to go unbuilt?!”

Sforno would have answered an emphatic “yes!” to this question, and he would have further said, “That was the whole point of God’s commanding the building of the Tabernacle to begin with.” The project was not, in the final analysis, about God’s having a place to rest His presence; the Presence of God is, as King Solomon pointed out, transcendent of physical space. Rather, it was a challenge to the children of Israel to discover what their hearts were made of. “From every person whose heart is moved by generosity, you shall take My contributions.”

This moment was designed and intended by God to be the first one in which the people would be forced to ask themselves how much generosity their hearts were capable of, how much love of God they had and to what extent they could be counted on to stand up and realize the great endeavors that would define Israel’s vision and spiritual identity. Indeed, if they would not step up, the Tabernacle would not be built. That’s precisely what made the challenge meaningful and made self-discovery possible.

Every morning we recite the Mishna: “These are mitzvot [commandments] that have no prescribed quantity: the leaving of a corner of the field for the poor … acts of lovingkindness and the study of Torah.”

The point of the Mishna is not only that there is no upper limit as to how these mitzvot may be performed, but also that there is almost no lower limit. These are mitzvot that can be performed in a token way, if that’s all a person is moved to do. And that is exactly what gives these mitzvot their special, Tabernacle-like quality. Every opportunity to initiate an act of lovingkindness is ultimately voluntary. Any given opportunity to study Torah is a choice, not an obligation. And this is what makes them invaluable opportunities for self-discovery. These are the moments when we are compelled to ask ourselves just how committed we actually are to the vision with which God has entrusted us. And these are the moments when we can rise to a challenge in ways more profound than when we fulfill mitzvot that are more compulsory in nature. These are the kinds of moments that are potentially transformative, as the building of the Tabernacle was for our ancestors in the desert.

A midrash: When the Holy One, Blessed be He, commanded Moses concerning the Tabernacle, Moses said, “Can the children of Israel really do this?” And God replied, “You will see that any one of them could do it alone,” as it is written, “from any person whose heart is moved by generosity you shall take My contributions.” This was the challenge, the challenge of self-discovery with which God dignified us in the desert.

Yosef Kanefsky is the rabbi of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Conservative Jews Gather at Crossroads

How should Conservative Judaism cope with dwindling membership, growing intermarriage rates and society’s increasing religious and political polarity, while remaining true to its base in halachah (Jewish law)?

Those are some of the vexing questions the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) will tackle when it convenes Sunday in Boston for its four-day biennial.

There are more: Who will replace Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, longtime chancellor of the movement’s flagship Jewish Theological Seminary, when he retires next summer? (See article on page 19 for more on his retirement.)

It’s no accident that the opening plenary talk by Rabbi Harold Kushner is called, “What Does It Mean to Be a Conservative Jew?” That’s a question that will be on everyone’s mind at the Dec. 4-8 conference, said Rabbi Joel Meyers, head of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative movement’s rabbinic arm.

“What the movement is struggling to do is set a public position for the 21st century,” he said.

The challenge comes as Conservative Judaism, which once set the agenda for American Jewry, has lost its numeric edge, dropping from 43 percent of affiliated Jews in 1990 to 33 percent in 2000, according to the two latest National Jewish Population Surveys. Conservative Jews are older as a group than the Reform or Orthodox, yet they hold most of the key positions in Jewish communal leadership, contributing to the aging of that leadership.

Meyers insists the Conservative movement “is strong” and said enrollment in day schools and camps is up, even as the movement’s outreach to young adult Jews is languishing.

In an effort to stem the hemorrhaging of membership in Conservative synagogues and soften the movement’s image of being cold and unwelcoming to the intermarried, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the USCJ’s executive vice president, will unveil a far-reaching initiative on keruv (outreach), directed primarily at interfaith families in Conservative congregations.

In the works for the past year, the initiative, described by Conservative leaders as much more forthcoming than the movement’s current approach to keruv, is being kept under tight wraps — though every movement leader, half a dozen congregations and selected outsiders already have seen it.

Epstein, the driving force behind the initiative, notes that in 1986 he headed the faction that pushed for promoting in-marriage rather than actively welcoming the intermarried. Now he’s spearheading an outreach approach that Charles Simon, head of the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, calls “a major reversal” of the movement’s current attitude.

Insisting it’s “an evolution, not a reversal,” Epstein said he didn’t believe two decades ago that the Conservative movement “had the resources to both promote in-marriage and keruv.” But with intermarriage a reality, he said he has “come to the conclusion that whether we can or can’t do both, we must.”

The initiative calls upon congregations to actively encourage conversion, particularly of non-Jews already in Conservative families.

“The process we’ve traditionally had, which makes it difficult to convert, was probably valuable at a particular time,” Epstein said. “While I’m not looking to recruit people off the street, for those who have already chosen to be part of a relationship with a Jew, we ought to be passionate and compassionate toward them.”

Epstein believes keruv is the biggest challenge facing Conservative Jewry.

“Our success here will determine not only the destiny of the movement but the destiny of American Jewish life,” he maintains.

The Conservatives are broadening their embrace of the intermarried just two weeks after Reform leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie proposed at that movement’s biennial that Reform congregations ask non-Jewish spouses to consider conversion.

Are the two approaches converging? Not really, Meyers said.

“Maybe at the edges Conservative is becoming more Reform,” he acknowledges, “but the two movements are distinctive. The Reform movement’s position is that each person and rabbi is autonomous and does their own thing, while we believe in halachah and mitzvot. We have a clear idea of how people should behave.”

“The Reform movement reaches out” and makes intermarried members feel comfortable, said Rabbi Moshe Edelman, director of congregational planning and leadership development for the United Synagogue.

“We’re saying, reach out and gather in for the sake of sanctity, of kedushah,” or holiness, he added. “We’re not looking for a comfort zone.”

Edelman has been test-marketing the keruv initiative to groups within and outside the Conservative movement, and said it has gone through at least a dozen iterations as input from the test groups is incorporated.

Rabbi Mordechai Miller of Brith Sholom Knesseth Israel Synagogue in St. Louis, one of the congregations Edelman visited, said the new approach gives voice to what he has felt for a long time. Describing his congregation’s approach to outreach as middle of the road, Miller said he “hesitates to predict” the initiative’s practical effect on congregations, “although any position that is put in an intelligent and clear way is helpful.”

The initiative offers “a suggestion of approaches” rather than dictating policy, Epstein said.

“It’s called al-haderech,” or on the path, “rather than ‘this is it.'”

That’s how it should be, Simon said — an outreach approach that incorporates the views of many people and institutions, rather than one imposed from the top down.

“Everyone in the movement agrees it’s important [to deal with outreach to the intermarried], we just haven’t yet come to agreement on how it should be done, which is fine,” he said.

Epstein expects that the new openness will impact the movement’s Camp Ramah and Solomon Schechter day schools, both of which place restrictions on children of non-Jewish mothers. The day schools, for example, require such students to convert within a year of admission.

In addition to the keruv initiative, at the biennial the movement for the first time will hand out keruv awards, recognizing six congregations for their outreach efforts.

Discussion of Schorsch’s replacement, a hot topic among movement leaders and rabbis, will take place more circumspectly in corridors and private meetings, rather than plenary sessions.

The seminary’s search committee is still evaluating candidates. Despite an ever-changing short list that surfaces on the gossip circuit, committee members remain tight-lipped. Rabbi Gordon Tucker of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y., the former dean of JTS, and Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the rabbinical school at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, are two current favorites.

“Traditionally the chancellor has served as a unifying voice, the ‘rabbi’ of the movement,” Meyers said, but the next person to fill that position could take it even further.

The USCJ also will consider resolutions supporting immigration reform, religious freedom in the workplace and food programs for the poor, opposing family violence and congratulating the United Nations for its improved treatment of Israel.

There also is a resolution on reproductive choice, a carefully worded document that opposes any civil laws that would prevent an abortion that religious authorities have determined is halachically warranted — that is, where the mother’s life and health are at risk.