The Inconsistency in the Torah exchange, part 2: Between biblical criticism and religious belief

Joshua A. Berman is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Hebrew Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He is the author of Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought.

This exchange focuses on Professor Berman’s new book Inconsistency in the Torah: Ancient Literary Convention and the Limits of Source Criticism (Oxford University Press). You can read part 1 here.


Dear Dr. Berman,

A big part of your research — as you mentioned in your first response — is searching for examples of inconsistent narratives and laws similar to those of the Torah in other ancient Near East texts. I would like to ask you how this could affect the attitude of practicing Jews toward the Torah.

Now, on the one hand, it seems that challenging the multiple texts and “the editor did so out of duress” explanation could result in a more unified, less chaotic Torah. This reading could present the Torah as a book with more internal coherence than most scholars assume, perhaps making it easier for some to treat it as divinely-inspired scripture.

On the other hand, examining the logic of the Torah in juxtaposition with sources like the Kadesh Inscription of Ramesses II or Babylonian law could be seen as stressing just how much the Torah is a work of a distinct time and place, one that shares a Mesopotamian way of thinking and writing that is very different from ours. This could make it harder for some believers to accept the uniqueness and singularity of the Jewish book of books.

My question: what kind of effect, if any, do you expect your book could have on its more religiously-inclined readers’ understanding of the Torah as a divine text?




Dear Shmuel,

Indeed, many people ask: Is not the Torah eternally valid and above time? Don’t we slight the Torah when we propose that it expresses itself in a manner that is culture-dependent or more relevant for one generation than another? These questions are crucial not only when we consider Orthodoxy’s engagement with biblical criticism. They are critical whenever we wish to study the Torah on its surface, peshat level.

My approach to the issue derives from that of Maimonides. He maintained that reading the Torah in its ancient context is a sacred enterprise and does not denigrate the sanctity or “eternal” nature of our sacred Scriptures. Instead, he believed that many matters in the Torah can be understood only by gaining access to the cultures of the ancient world. In fact, such study for Maimonides has theological significance: it allows us to discern God’s caring and fostering nature.  Maimonides knew, as we all do, that healthy development of all kinds is always a process. When the Torah issued commandments that were cloaked in the language of the ancient world, and resembled the practices common in the ancient world, he saw this as evidence of the Almighty’s guiding path of slow, spiritual growth afforded Israel.

Maimonides bemoans the fact that he is so removed in place and time from the ancient world and cannot fully appreciate the reforms inherent in many of the mitzvot. He writes that he sought out every book in the world about ancient practices so as to understand as much as he could about ancient Near Eastern culture. Doing so enables him to discern the prudence and wisdom of the Divine hand and the Divine plan. Maimonides maintains that many of the Torah’s commandments are a broad mélange of continuities and discontinuities with ancient Near Eastern practice. A deep recognition of the interplay between the two enables us to apprehend how the Almighty nurtures Israel’s spiritual development in incremental steps. As I have argued elsewhere, seeing the Torah in this comparative light allows us to see it as a treatise of political thought that was light years ahead of its time, and at an astounding divide from anything that existed anywhere in the ancient world.

Even as I propose engaging ancient Near Eastern texts to help us understand the Torah, I realize that for many there is a certain hesitation to do so that stems from the realm of religious psychology. When you open up James Pritchard’s classic work, Ancient Near Eastern Texts it just doesn’t feel like a holy endeavor; it certainly doesn’t feel like you’re in any way engaging in the sacred command of Torah study– talmud Torah. In fact, there’s almost a feeling that such materials, even if not forbidden, somehow encroach upon the holiness of the endeavor of Talmud Torah. In our world, where an atmosphere of holiness—kedushah—is such a fragile thing, the feeling is understandable. However, figures like the Rambam—and I would add, other Torah luminaries such as R. Levi b. Gershom (Ralbag), and Abarbanel—freely and seamlessly integrated non-Torah materials into their study of the Torah.

Yet, if there are aspects of the Torah that are indeed best understood in ancient context, in what sense is the Torah “eternal”?

The supposition of the Torah’s “eternity,” while correct, needs to be defined. Do we mean that its meaning is fixed, singular and eternal? Such a position contravenes fundamental tenets of rabbinic Judaism. If this is the sense in which the Torah is eternal, then there is no room for any interpretation at all. All ages would need to understand the Torah in exactly the same manner. The “eternal” nature of the Written Torah, its multifaceted richness, is found only through the medium of the interpretative process of the Torah She-be’al Peh. The Sages teach that there are seventy “faces” to the Torah. The simplest meaning, the peshat, is sometimes time-dependent, addressed to the generation that received the Torah. But our tradition has never limited itself to understanding the Torah according to its peshat level alone. Rather, it has put a premium on rabbinic engagement with the text, enabling other meanings to radiate throughout the millennia, and allowing new perspectives and interpretations to thrive. This is not some apologetic innovation of the rabbinic period. Rather it is part of the warp and woof of the five books of the Torah themselves: for many great sages—R. Zadok of Lublin, the Zohar, the and R. Isaiah Ha-levi Horowitz (the Shel”a)—the commandments of the book of Deuteronomy are the interpretations and reapplication by Moses of God’s earlier laws, now calibrated for the new challenges of life in the land of Israel.


Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau (L) attend a New Year's ceremony of the Israel Police Command at the National Headquarters of the Israel Police in Jerusalem on September 7, 2015. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

There’s no ‘blacklist’ of rabbis

In the last 48 hours, Jewish media have breathlessly reported on an Israeli “blacklist” of Diaspora rabbis, including Orthodox ones, whose letters attesting to the Jewishness of olim (immigrants) as candidates for marriage were rejected last year. Furious denunciations of Israel’s rabbinate followed, particularly since the story came right after last week’s Kotel and conversion controversies.

One problem: it’s not true.

Israel’s rabbinate has never used the term “blacklist” or anything like it, and the chief rabbi said he had never heard of any such list. The term arose in a story published Saturday night by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), attributing it to Rabbi Seth Farber of ITIM, an organization that regularly criticizes the rabbinate. Since then it’s been repeated ad nauseam in headlines and opinion pieces; Facebook posts and Tweets.

The term is wholly inappropriate. Blacklists are not retroactive. Even calling it a “list” implies that Israel looks up the names of rabbis submitting letters to see if they’ve been banned. We have no evidence that’s happening. All we know is that in 2016, certain letters were rejected (for whatever reason) and Rabbi Farber’s Freedom of Information request collected their names. That’s it.

If Israel had a policy to reject letters from all non-Orthodox rabbis (and some left-of-center Orthodox rabbis), that indeed would be news and worthy of debate. But more than 3,000 Americans move to Israel each year, many hundreds of whom are non-Orthodox, and hundreds of whom get married each year. If the rejections are ideological, why are letters from only 45 non-Orthodox American rabbis being rejected? And why none from women?

We don’t know why these letters were rejected, because neither the rabbinate nor Rabbi Farber are saying. But my guess is that many were for routine matters – confirming the Judaism of the mother but not the grandmother, for example. In one case I know of (in a previous year), the rabbinate rejected a proof-of-Judaism letter because it was signed by a rabbi whose name was not on the stationery. In another case, a supposedly blacklisted rabbi had one of his letters rejected but others accepted. Sure, the rabbinate may have also rejected some letters because of antagonism toward the rabbi who wrote them. But it hasn’t said so, and that as-yet-unproven possibility does not justify scandalous headlines.

I hesitate to use a 2017 cliché like “fake news,” but this is an entirely manufactured controversy, and we know who manufactured it: Rabbi Farber. In an essay published earlier today in the Jewish Journal, he used the issue of proof-of-Judaism letters to renew his longstanding antagonism toward the rabbinate, and that’s his right.

But the timing of the controversy couldn’t be worse, while Diaspora-Israel tensions are at historic highs. Looking around social media, some American Jews are starting to think, “Israel reneged on its deal accepting the way I want to pray at the Kotel, won’t accept non-Orthodox conversion, and now is keeping a blacklist of rabbis like mine? Forget it.”

It doesn’t matter that all three of those claims are unfair. The mounting “evidence” that Israel disdains the bulk of American Jewry is straining the relationship and in some places even beginning to break it.

The Jewish people should be looking to defuse those tensions right now, to find common ground between Israel and the Diaspora. But 21st century social and other media tends to reinforce people’s prejudices, and nuggets of news that do just that can zip around the net before anyone has a chance to “Snopes” them.

Well, in this case, Snopes would give “blacklist of rabbis” a big, fat FALSE. It just doesn’t exist.

David Benkof is a frequent contributor to the Jewish Journal. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) and, or E-mail him at

Clarification: this story has been adjusted to reflect the fact that the letters in question were used for marriage, not aliyah.

A view from the women’s section on Orthodox spiritual leadership

I have a vivid memory of sitting in my yeshiva high school principal’s office, imploring him to start teaching the girls Mishnah and Gemara, to offer a little more respect to our intellects and our souls by giving us access to all the Jewish texts that form the basis of our heritage, of what we were expected to live every day. He said no, for four years. Did he quote sources at me stating that women’s minds are too feeble for it? Say that it wouldn’t interest me anyway? That it’s simply not done? I’ve shut those details out of my memory, but my mission was clear: If I wanted access to the heritage that is rightfully mine, I was going to have to get out of the principal’s office. And I did. After I graduated from yeshiva high school, I started taking adult Gemara classes, and I continue to do so today. 

Last week, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA)
I have found a Modern Orthodoxy so meaningful, so relevant and so true to the halachah and values central to the Torah, that I don’t need RCA approval to tell me I’m doing the right thing.

A few months ago, Bnai David installed Morateinu Alissa Thomas-Newborn as the first female clergy member in an Orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles. (Full disclosure: I serve on the board that hired her.)

My shul, my community, my Judaism, are stronger and richer for having a woman as a holy presence among us. Morateinu Alissa delivers heartfelt and learned drashot, offers halachic guidance on highly personal issues with immense sensitivity, and shares deep insights as a teacher. She relates to our teen girls and has brought her unique interests, her brand of empathy, her youthful perspective, to complement Rabbi Kanefsky’s dynamic wisdom and courage and menschlichkayt. 

But mostly I appreciate Morateinu Alissa’s presence. In our shul, men and women are physically divided by a mechitzah, and nearly all the action goes on on the men’s side. That tradition continues, as Morateinu Alissa, like all women, does not lead any of the davening or even count toward a minyan. But now, we women can feel that we own a little more of what goes on in shul. We have a religious leader we can sit next to during davening, with whom we can shake hands or hug when she descends from the bimah after giving a beautiful sermon, to whom we can look during davening as an inspiration for kavanah, of holy intention, without the obstruction of the wooden latticework of our mechitzah barring our full view, our full access. 

Maybe the RCA should feel threatened. Women and men who experience the added dimension and texture that a female perspective can bring to congregational life might realize what they have been missing all along.

And women who experience the sense of belonging and relevance might demand it in other shuls, even in shuls where the mechitzah is not built with the same symmetry and sensitive semi-transparency, or where the velvet-cloaked Torah scroll is not carried through an array of women’s outstretched arms offering kisses or a caress. 

I remember the first time I saw a sefer Torah up close. There I was, 19 years old, already having had about 16 years of formal Jewish education, and I had never seen the letters of the Torah, never read a verse from an actual scroll. I was working at a summer camp, and my then-boyfriend, now-husband, brought me into the tented beit knesset in the middle of a field, took a scroll from the ark, and opened it for me. It was that simple, and that complicated.

A few years later, my husband taught me to lein Torah for the women’s prayer group I had just joined, and I realized that those little symbols I had always ignored were not only a melody, but punctuation. For years, I had been reading the words of the Torah with an unnecessary handicap.

What we are doing in Modern Orthodoxy is removing those unnecessary obstacles so we can use all the tools offered to us to find the truest meaning of our traditions. We are not suggesting a halachic free-for-all, but rather a more authentic adherence to what the halachah does and does not demand of us.

I know I might be naïve and delusional to thumb my nose at the RCA. I am not a professional spiritual leader, so my livelihood and life’s mission are not at stake. And more important, in Orthodoxy, community is everything. I’d like to see the RCA do what the grass-roots community does — recognize that there is a place in the Modern Orthodox community for all of us. Because stepping outside the community has very real consequences. 

I guess what both sides need to figure out now is how to define, and who is defining, today’s Modern Orthodox community.

Why does a shul need a Maharat?

A recent opinion piece in the Washington Jewish Week by Barbara Zakheim praised her Orthodox congregation (the National Synagogue in Washington, DC) for hiring a Maharat, a female spiritual leader. She describes herself as “ECSTATIC!!” (formatting hers) about the role the Maharat, Ruth Balinsky Friedman, has been playing in her shul.

The reasons Zakheim gives: Maharat Friedman is knowledgeable and humble. She shows female Jewish leadership, shares words of Torah, and answers religious questions – especially those relating to family purity. She leads women-only discussions, and helps comfort female mourners.

And, Zakheim is quick to add, she is “delighted” that she doesn’t “ever feel that our Maharat is a feminist or leading a feminist movement.” She’s just an example of how the existence of increasingly educated Jewish women “warrants female leadership along with that of men.”

If all of that is true, why does the shul need a Maharat in the first place?

All the roles Zakheim describes have been played by Jewish women for centuries – by rebbetzins,mikvah ladies, and older relatives. Despite Zakheim’s protestations, the reasons the title Maharat exists in the first place are explicitly feminist.

The Open Orthodox segment of the Jewish community that has been pushing for women’s ordination (at first with the title Rabba, then Maharat) is not interested purely in having women answer halachic questions and comfort mourners. That’s nothing new. Even roles that have not been consistently played by women – such as giving divrei Torah to mixed groups – do not require any change in the nature of ordination.

Incidentally, Zakheim is wrong about whether Maharat Friedman is a feminist. In a 2013 interview with the Web site, she said, “I would assume people classify [me and my classmates] as feminists. I would infer that people believe that we are the next step in putting [Orthodox] women in the public sphere and encouraging women to take positions of spiritual leadership within the community. I absolutely identify as a feminist.”

Supporters of the Maharat movement want to demonstrate to the world that Judaism ascribes equal (not equally valuable – equal) status to women and men. As Zakheim put it, Maharat Friedman is “a shining example of overall female leadership for my granddaughters, who also attend my synagogue. They are growing up witnessing that female spiritual leadership is normal… This also applies to the male children in our community, for whom a Maharat is now the norm.”

That represents, precisely, a feminist agenda – and one that is alien to traditional halachic Judaism. Showing young boys that a woman can not only play a feminine leadership role, but also be just as “official” as a male clergyman is not a goal contained in any of our religious texts. It is simply Western political feminism grafted onto traditional Judaism, and does not deserve to be called Orthodox.

Zakheim concludes that she looks forward to “the time when every modern Orthodox community hires a Maharat or the equivalent and reaps the benefits of their leadership as the National Synagogue does today.”

Anyone who supports an Orthodoxy wedded to our tradition rather than infused with foreign and possibly ephemeral value systems should be anything but ECSTATIC!! should her wish come true.

David Benkof is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter (@DavidBenkof); or E-mail him at

What ‘Divergent’ can teach us about post-denominational Judaism

Disclaimer: Having only seen the movie, I won’t speak about the other two books of the trilogy. This article contains spoilers.

Picture a society that subdivides its members into factions, each of which has a unique virtue, and then enforces a separation of those groups so strict that it hunts down any person who would dare blur the boundaries. 

This is a brief plot summary of “Divergent,” a new hit film adaptation of a dystopian young adult novel that frequently has been compared to “The Hunger Games.” But with a few — admittedly significant — tweaks, the same story could also describe the landscape of contemporary American Judaism. 

“Divergent” is set in a world that has divided itself into five factions in order to “keep the peace.” Each faction has its own unique virtue. There’s Amity, the peaceful; Candor, the honest; Erudite, the intelligent; Dauntless, the brave; and Abnegation, the selfless — the faction our heroine, Tris, is born into.

At age 16, people are given the choice to pick the faction they want to be in for the rest of their lives. This choice is largely based on an aptitude test that indicates which of their personality traits is most dominant. It’s rare that test results show more than one trait; those whose results do just that are labeled “Divergents,” and they are hunted, because society believes that they pose a threat to its very fabric. 

Tris is a Divergent. And even though she chooses to become a Dauntless, she never quite fits in there. She must keep her identity secret, or risk facing death.

The lines are cut differently in Judaism; there’s no perfect analogy between, for instance, Reform and Abnegation or Orthodox and Erudite. And yet, we similarly divide ourselves into “factions.” 

We’ve heard dismissals of members from one faction by those in another: The arrogant Orthodox sneer at anyone less meticulously observant; the Conservative are kidding if they think they can sustain halachic lifestyles balanced with an ever-demanding focus on secularism; today’s Reform Jews are tomorrow’s unaffiliated Jews — and don’t even start on so-called “fringe” movements such as Open Orthodoxy, Reconstructionist, Humanist, Renewal, etc.

That line of thinking will only continue to tear us apart, not only because of its inherent baseless hatred, but because strict denominational thinking leaves no room for Divergents. And, unlike in the fictional world set forth in “Divergent,” Divergents are anything but rare in our reality.

I belong to a Modern Orthodox synagogue, but I feel comfortable davening in a minyan without a mechitzah, where men and women sit together. I won’t eat a bite of food that isn’t certified as strictly kosher, but you’ll almost never find me wearing a skirt below my knee.

And it’s not just me. I heard the wife of a Chabad rabbi give a lecture — to a co-ed crowd, with her proud husband present — about the halachic inconsistencies regarding the mechitzah. I’ve known numerous friends to bounce from rabbinical school to rabbinical school. I’ve known Orthodox people who watch TV on Shabbat and Reform friends who wouldn’t dare.

We don’t all fit squarely along denomination lines. Some people are comfortable pretending: Choosing the denomination that fits closest, learning the rules of that space and acting accordingly. But some of us can’t. In one moment, we might be focused on tikkun olam, in another eschew davening, and in another, boil a “dairy” ladle for use in chicken soup. And when someone asks what kind of Jew we are, we don’t know. We pick an answer that’s half-true, and the inevitable follow-up “But you do X …” — is inevitably painful.

But there is a remedy: post-denominational Judaism. Contrary to interdenominational groups that largely serve only “left-wing” populations, I’m referring to a place where whatever stringencies one needs for halacha are found, as are all the loopholes. Maybe it’s not a synagogue — it’s difficult, for instance, to have women lead services and not have women lead services and still all be together. 

It might not be a place at all, but rather an understanding — that the synagogues and schools we do or don’t attend, the rabbis we do or don’t adhere to, don’t define us. It’s an understanding that we can perhaps attend a Conservative rabbinical school and pray in an Orthodox synagogue and send our children to a Reform summer camp without any one of those organizations questioning our loyalty, devotion or commitment. Because at the end of the day, our loyalty, devotion and commitment are not to a denomination, but rather to a religion, a faith, a people.

The search for identity in a sectarian world is tough, as Four, another Divergent that Tris falls in love with, illustrates. “I don’t want to be just one thing,” Four tells her. “I can’t be. I want to be brave, and I want to be selfless, intelligent, and honest, and kind. Well, I’m still working on kind.”

There are important values in each Jewish denomination that are missing from the others, values that many of us want to embody — or at least, like Four, try to. But instead of having the freedom to explore, to work together and round ourselves out, American Jews have created a system wherein we succumb to boxes and labels and confine ourselves to simply being one thing. 

In doing so, we’ve created a space where Divergents have to hide. But if life imitates art — spoiler alert — they can’t keep hiding.

Cindy Kaplan is a comedy writer who has written for Disney, Yahoo!, Electus, VEVO, and G-dcast. She studied American Studies, Journalism, and Creative Writing at Brandeis University.

Letters to the Editor: Hillel serves up diverse buffet and Orthodoxy dividing the community

Hillel Buffet Serves Up a Diverse Menu

Hillel at UCLA enjoys a good relationship with the local Chabad (“Sharing the Next Gen — Hillel and Chabad on Campus,” Oct. 25). The unconditional love they exhibit is indeed laudable, and it is true that Chabad’s free Friday night dinners influenced us to also offer our dinners for free. 

However, the recent cover story in the Jewish Journal comparing Hillel and Chabad on campus missed the essential differences between the organizations, their missions, and their measures of success.

Hillel provides a buffet of Jewish choices that range from the intensely religious to the Jewishly worldly. Our philosophy is: “Come to Hillel to taste all the Jewish delights.”

Do you want Torah and Talmud study? We have that. Do you want tikkun olam? We have that. Do you want Reform, Conservative and Orthodox prayer services? We have those, too. Do you want to learn about Jewish culture? Jewish history? Heschel? Soloveitchik? Freud? Einstein? Maimonides? We have them, as well.

Do you want Holocaust education? Israel advocacy? Leadership training? Jewish art exhibits? Conferences on important Jewish issues? Or how about just hanging out at our Coffee Bean to mingle with other Jews? We offer all of that, as well as social justice projects such as “Challah for Hunger,” “Swipes-for-the-Homeless” and building medical clinics in Northern Uganda.

This is not a Judaism that downplays tradition. To the contrary, our beit midrash pulsates with the rhythms of Jewish learning, and, with our glatt kosher cafeteria and daily minyanim, Hillel at UCLA has become home to the largest Orthodox campus community west of the Mississippi.

The point is this: Hillel at UCLA offers a broad, Big Tent Judaism that no one else offers. 

For the Jewish Journal to suggest that we are being influenced and even “changed” by a Jewish group whose programs and approach are completely different is not just unfair to us, it’s also unfair to our friends at Chabad.

Yes, we respect all methods of Jewish outreach, and, at the same time, we believe that our pluralistic, Jewish buffet offers the best hope of attracting Jewish students from across the spectrum.

This substantive pluralism is what distinguishes Hillel from other Jewish organizations, and it is our holistic formula for sustaining and growing a Jewish future. 

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Executive Director, UCLA Hillel and Rabbi Aaron Lerner, Senior Jewish Educator, UCLA Hillel

Orthodoxy Putting a Wedge Between Jews

It’s not a contest (“Why Orthodox Is Growing,” Oct. 25). Nobody “wins” when the overall number of Jews who practice and adhere to their religion is diminished. The Orthodox can easily “win the battle but lose the war” if they become so marginalized and exclusive that the rest of Jews fade away. Unless Orthodoxy exerts efforts to bridge the gap, it will find that there are a million Orthodox Jews in the United States and nobody who views them as “co-religionists” or “brothers” and that is a real small and totally insignificant minority except in Boro[ough] Park, Williamsburg and a few other minor American shtetlach.

Charles Hoffman via

Dennis Prager makes a number of thoughtful explanations for the group of Orthodox Judaism, but his connection of Orthodoxy and right-wing Conservatism is not one of them. Orthodox Jews can be found across the political spectrum. Here in Los Angeles, Orthodox Jewish men and women are challenging traditional approaches by infusing their Jewish life with more liberal approaches. By doing so, they have not undermined Orthodoxy or diminished their love for Israel. Just the opposite — their Ahavat Israel of Orthodox Jews or the left of the political spectrum has grown without any signs of the cynicism Prager associates with liberal Jews.

Elie Shapiro, North Hollywood

Dennis Prager responds: Elie Shapiro conflates liberalism in politics (“Orthodox Jews can be found across the political spectrum”) with liberalism within Judaism (“Orthodox Jewish men and women are challenging traditional approaches by infusing their Jewish life with more liberal approaches”). They have little to do with one another.
I, for example, welcome a more liberal approach to halachah. But the notion that Orthodox Judaism and leftism have much, if anything, in common is unsustainable. And since Mr. Shapiro did not cite any examples, I don’t know what left-wing positions he is referring to. Is Orthodoxy for redefining marriage as the left is? Is Orthodoxy anti-Israel, as most of the left here and in Europe is? Does Orthodoxy believe that people are basically good? Does it morally agree with abortion on demand?

There is a reason that the vast majority of Orthodox Jews are conservative. The reason is Orthodox Judaism.


An article on Hillels and Chabad (“Sharing the Next Gen,” Oct. 25) suggests that a “fundraising partnership” exists between Hillel at UCLA and the UCLA Foundation. In fact, there is no formal relationship or partnership between Hillel at UCLA and the UCLA Foundation.

In Israeli military, a growing Orthodoxy

Roni Daniel saw the writing on the wall in a toilet.

A former infantry commander who fought in three Middle East wars and now the dean of Israeli defense correspondents, Daniel recently visited military headquarters in Tel Aviv. There, a urinal that uses a motion detector to clean itself was signposted: “Forbidden on the Sabbath.” Troops, he realized, were being ordered to defer to Orthodox Jewish curbs on the use of electricity between Friday night and Saturday night.

For Daniel, and for millions of other Israeli citizens, the sign is symbolic of creeping change in an institution long cherished as a bastion of national unity. An increasing number of conscripts are Orthodox Jews – mirroring the growth of the minority in Israeli society at large. Some religious troops view military service through the prism of their own piety – either as the realization of a messianic vision that sees Jews conquering biblical lands or as an institution that should be subordinated to rabbinical writ.

For secular Israelis, already worried about the role of religion in the Jewish state, that threatens not just the military but the country itself.

“In my time, the skullcap-wearers came to the military and served alongside me. They lived their lives as they pleased, we respected them, and they also respected our lifestyle,” said Daniel, who is 64 and secular. “Today’s generation, to a degree, joins up with the object of imposing its lifestyle on others – to dictate how to behave. It’s a crawling annexation.”

Israel Defense Forces top brass say religion is not threatening the chain of command. “No rabbi will run any of my units,” chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, told Israel’s top-rated Channel Two news last month.


The IDF has always been a “Jewish” army. Its rations are kosher, its chaplains are rabbis, and it operates – with the exception of wartime – around the festival calendar. It has never drafted soldiers from Israel’s 20-percent Arab minority. But its Jewish identity has always been more cultural than religious.

IDF personnel data suggests that’s changing. Around 57 percent of Israel’s Jewish majority, census figures show, define themselves as religiously observant to some degree. Two relatively small but distinct groups of religious Israelis are growing both in numbers and in power: the ascetic, often apolitical and ultra-pious “haredim,” who join up despite their community’s exemption from conscription; and pro-settlement Orthodox Jews, whose dogma focuses less on religious rite and more on the sanctity of Israel’s fight for territorial expansion.

There were 5,800 haredi soldiers last year, according to the military, up more than a quarter from 4,600 in 2007. Those soldiers serve in a dedicated infantry battalion as well as in technical units designed to provide the troops with a trade when they return to civilian life. The haredi presence may grow even further following a Supreme Court ruling last month that struck down the law that helped ultra-Orthodox men avoid conscription.

The other group of devout soldiers is harder to pigeonhole. Many come from settlements in the West Bank – the cradle of Judaism and a territory where Palestinians seek statehood – and display a disproportionate drive to join combat units as well as the officer corps. A 2010 study cited by the official military journal Bamahane said 13 percent of company commanders – the key junior officers with arguably the most immediate sway over their troops – lived in West Bank settlements, for instance. By comparison, settlers made up just 2.5 percent of Israel’s total population. Maarachot, the Defense Ministry journal, published figures showing that the percentage of Orthodox infantry officer cadets rose from 2.5 percent in 1990 to 31.4 percent in 2007.


Those changes have real-world ramifications. The army has long used musical bands, including women soldiers as singers, at memorials for dead soldiers. Such events were once a matter of consensus, a badge of egalitarianism for the IDF which conscripts thousands of secular Jewish women. But puritannical rabbis consider women’s singing to be a sexual temptation, and requests by religious troops to be excused from the events snowballed into open calls for boycott last year.

Chief of staff Gantz fired back by insisting on compulsory attendance for all. Rabbinical recriminations followed. Moshe Ravad, an air force lieutenant-colonel and chaplain in charge of encouraging the ultra-Orthodox to enlist, resigned in protest in January.

The flap coincided with much-publicized Israeli outrage at forcible gender segregation in ultra-Orthodox communities and added to the sense that society was shifting. The military’s chief rabbi, Brigadier-General Rafi Peretz, said Ravad had undermined both a core project and a wider national effort to maintain harmony within the armed forces.

Speaking to the conservative Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon, Peretz said that for the sake of army unity he would counsel religious soldiers to attend formal events where women sing.

“(They should) go in, because we are anxious to preserve the state, the military, the nation’s arising and the beginning of our redemption,” Peretz said, combining in one sentence secular Israeli terms of cohesion with hints of an end-of-days prophesy.

But Peretz, a clean-shaven former helicopter pilot, also said that the future could favor religious troops. During his air force training, he said, “we had to conduct test flights on the Sabbath as well, and I would fly. A few years later, we asked the military if this was really necessary, and they changed it. The military takes into account where things stand.”

Such statements inflame concerns among liberal Israelis that their religious compatriots – who tend to have larger families and often mobilize for conservative political causes – might use the military to help strengthen their cultural and electoral clout.

Books: A heretic with fries on the side

“Foreskin’s Lament,” by Shalom Auslander (Riverhead, $24.95).

Consider the poor foreskin: an object of desire for a few, a matter of indifference for many and anathema to the Jews. Like bacon and lobster, it serves as the very definition of treif. Its rejection is the primordial sign of the Covenant.

Consider, then, Shalom Auslander. In his corrosively funny memoir, “Foreskin’s Lament,” he claims ” target=”_blank”>The Forward and is reprinted with permission.

Hindu widows, remembering Marcy, Conservatives are dishy, Oh! Happy Day!

Our Jewish Spinsters

Rob Eshman’s piece, “Our Hindu Widows” is literally unbelievable (Aug. 10). I am a marriage-minded 52-year-old SJM. I have never been married and want to find my match and start a family. The only really practical advice I have ever heard is “Buy a mansion in Potomac, Md!” It is incredibly difficult to find a marriage-minded SJF young enough to have children; who is attractive, relocatable and willing to marry a nice, but not perfect, man.

I am healthy, fit, reasonably cute, well-educated, professionally successful, prosperous, considerate, great with kids, come from a well-respected family and am a dues-paying member of two Orthodox congregations. I am picky, but less so than most SJFs.

Paul Ackman
Richmond, Va.

A New Dish

The Industrial Revolution brought with it unprecedented societal changes (“Conservatives’ New Dish,” Sept. 21). Leaders of the Conservative movement, fearing that the faithful might be unable to fulfill their religious obligations, chose to relax some rules in response to the new social order. Judaism, they reasoned, is a living religion, and what better way to prove it than to adjust it to the demands of modern life?

For example, during the past century, limited driving has been permitted on Shabbat, the restrictions of kashrut have been relaxed and women have been invited to fully participate on the bimah. Much to the chagrin of our leaders, these changes have resulted in unintended consequences.

Those who enjoy the liberalization, and especially their progeny, find comfort in the Reform Movement, where halacha is less of an issue. On the other hand, those wishing to stay more closely aligned with our customs and rituals have discovered Modern Orthodoxy. They seemingly abide by our ancient laws, while coexisting successfully in the modern business world.

There are two groups for whom the Conservative movement is still a big draw. The first are observant women who want equity on the bimah. The second are homosexuals, who crave adherence to halacha. Although Conservative Judaism still does not fully embrace this demographic group, the only question is when, not if, the rules will be changed.

Whether these two groups, and those of us who concur with them, are adequate to sustain the Conservative movement, remains to be seen. For now, as David Suissa notes, we will continue to engage in “more debate.”

Leonard Solomon
Los Angeles

Oh Happy Day!

Thank you so much for your thoughtful, and meaningful article (“Can Happiness Be Taught?” Sept. 14).

I hope you receive lots and lots of letters from totally ordinary people like me who are just plain happy and grateful just about all of the time. It’s true … I’ve “had it easy” relatively speaking. Thank God no child of mine has been stricken with some dreaded disease. I’ve managed to become 91 years old without needing to deal with an unusual personal catastrophe. Of course, I’ve had my share of the so-called “ups and downs,”… but that’s what being alive is all about. Managing the downs and appreciating the ups (plus the times in between).

And being glad that the downs have been manageable.

Alyse Laemmle
Hermosa Beach

Temple Mount
Please continue your coverage of the desecration of Har-Habayit, the Temple Mount, by the Muslim Waqf (“No One Cares About Ravaging of Temple Mount,” Sept. 21).

The question remains: what will it take for the Jewish people to wake up and stand up for this holy piece of land that was stolen by the Muslims? It is the ultimate chutzpah that they would steal a sacred place, build a shrine and then desecrate the foundation.

J. Sand
Los Angeles

Who Shall Die

The piece “Who Shall Die” about Marcy Asher was very moving (Sept. 14). This woman was unknown to me but it showed how we usually never know what the people we meet in our daily life are going through and therefore we need to make allowances for others. May her family and friends be comforted.

Bob Kirk
Los Angeles

As I’m not Jewish nor a denizen of California, I have not to date read your publication. While waiting at the nail salon this morning I picked it up and read with interest Ms. Asher’s remembrance. I must say that it was rather surprising to read the underlying theme and apparent reason for the article was a forum for the gentleman to boast of his lascivious conquest of a young lady.

Odd to take a young woman who was schizophrenic and use that to his own sexual advantage. One often thinks the Jewish people have higher ideals. Apparent misconception since this publication is titled The Jewish Journal.

Quite surprising, this article. Quite sad, the editor. A tragedy for this girl to be remembered with prurience.

Wendy Lofts-Millington
New York, N.Y.

UC Irvine

In your article about the UC Irvine fiasco (“Chemerinsky Affair Reflects UCI-Jewish Conflicts,” Sept. 21), you noted the ZOA’s federal civil rights complaint on behalf of Jewish students there, which alleges the university’s unlawful failure to respond to anti-Semitic harassment and intimidation on the campus.

Your readers should also know that the complaint triggered a government investigation into the university’s conduct, which is still ongoing. Also, while noting that UC Irvine’s chancellor has been criticized for failing to respond effectively to the harassment of Jewish students, you seemingly suggest that he is somehow redeemed by having condemned the British boycott of Israeli universities. The chancellor’s protest is commendable, but where has he been when it comes to speaking out against anti-Semitism on his own campus? UC Irvine routinely hosts events at which speakers inaccurately call Israel an apartheid state, blame “the Zionist Jews” for the Sept. 11 terror attacks and other problems in the world, and accuse “the Zionist Jews” of bullying, conspiratorial conduct, and trickery. It is this kind of hateful bigotry that leads to a British academic boycott, and Chancellor Drake should stop remaining silent and start clearly and forcefully condemning it.

Susan B. Tuchman
Center for Law and Justice
Zionist Organization of America

Pro-Israel Lobby

I am totally bemused by the Walt-Mearsheimer, Jewish/Israeli lobby, brouhaha.

Back to Center for YU?

Will Richard Joel — elected Dec. 5 as Yeshiva University’s (YU) new president — redirect the flagship institution of modern Orthodoxy from its rightward move of the past several decades back toward the center?

That’s a question being asked in the halls of YU and throughout the community at the culmination of a long and difficult search process for a successor to Dr. Norman Lamm, who has guided the institution since 1976.

During that time, the level of talmudic instruction, and learning, at YU has risen dramatically. At the same time, though, the school’s role as a bridge between the Orthodox world and the rest of the Jewish community has diminished as YU focused inward.

Now, in a religious environment that has become more polarized, much of the future of modern Orthodoxy depends on the path taken by the new president. It is a moment ripe with religious and sociological import.

While it is too early for answers, it appears that Joel, 52, who for the past 14 years has served as president and international director of Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, will seek to make YU a more open, tolerant and spirited school, albeit gradually, with a renewed vision of academic excellence.

Joel said his skills for the new posts include “taking institutions where people look askance at my capacities, and being able to empower them.

“Ultimately,” he added in an interview this week, “the success of the president of the institution will not be based on how I shine but on how others shine, and I am pretty good at lighting Chanukah lights.”

Joel’s background and views have emphasized inclusion, dialogue and creative tension in his Hillel work, dealing with all stripes of religious and secular Jews. That makes some on the right of the religious spectrum at YU nervous, if not fearful, while pleasing those who believe YU’s mission of synthesis between Torah and secular studies has been expropriated by the rabbinic faculty.

Joel had spent much of the time leading up to the election in New York, meeting individually and in groups with key faculty, students and lay leaders of YU, outlining his goals and seeking to assuage the fears of those who worry that he lacks rabbinic credentials, or is too liberal, or both.

His message has been less about religious politics and more about raising academic standards, paying more attention to the needs of students, and unifying the many strands of YU, consisting of undergraduate and graduate schools, including the Albert Einstein Medical School and the Benjamin Cardozo Law School. He has said that his hashkafah (religious outlook), was formed by Lamm, who has written extensively about the values of modern Orthodoxy.

Joel becomes the first YU president who is neither a rabbinic nor academic scholar. His lack of rabbinic authority was a major point of contention with some affiliated with the rabbinic school, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS).

Two of the rabbis, Michael Rosensweig and Mayer Twersky, were invited by RIETS chairman Julius Berman to address the RIETS board, made up of more than 40 people, before the vote last Thursday evening. (The meeting took place after the board of trustees of YU elected Joel by a vote of 30-2.) The rabbis offered impassioned speeches as to why YU should be led by a rabbinic scholar, and voiced concern that YU could become a more secular school, like Brandeis University or Bar-Ilan in Israel.

Yet Joel seems undaunted by the fact that some of the faculty and lay leaders at YU’s rabbinical school opposed his becoming chief executive officer of RIETS. “I am just filled with yir’ah [awe], and I am grateful to the ribbono shel olam [Master of the Universe] to be worthy of such a position,” Joel told the campus newspaper, Commentator, after the vote. “I’m thrilled to lead this wonderful team, to keep building something special.”

Some rabbis were strongly resisting the break in YU tradition of having a Talmudic scholar and academic intellectual at the helm of the institution. They also opposed separating the positions of president of the university, CEO of RIETS and rosh yeshiva (head of the yeshiva) of RIETS.

In past meetings with Joel, which were described as tense and difficult, some of the rabbinic faculty voiced deep concerns and predicted that splitting the leadership of RIETS and the university would spell doom for YU.

Others dismissed their complaints as overly worrisome and reflective of the wide gap between the rabbis and the rest of the university.

Some observers say that Joel, a reluctant candidate who has said he was perfectly happy with his tenure at Hillel, had become increasingly interested in the YU post because he feels he could breathe fresh life into the institution.

Joel is only the fourth president in YU’s long history; founded in 1897, it became a college in 1928. He will assume the position in spring.

The Joel candidacy did not come about easily. Over the last 20 months as candidates and potential candidates have been named, withdrawn, discouraged or discarded, it became increasingly clear that no one individual was suitable to fit the Lamm mold of Torah and academic scholar, with additional skills as an administrator and fundraiser comfortable with people.

In wooing Joel over the last several weeks, the lay leadership of the school either lowered the bar or came to grips with reality, depending on one’s point of view.

Leaders said they came to agree that their first goal was to find the best possible person to head — and drive — YU, rather than a spokesman or academic model for modern Orthodoxy.

Why Joel?

In interviews with key lay and professional leaders of YU and Hillel, and other parts of the community, the portrait that emerges of Joel is one of a committed and passionate leader who excels at inspiring a sense of teamwork and pride in students and faculty.

“Richard is never content with mediocrity, and that’s a wonderful quality,” said Steven Bayme, national director of Contemporary Jewish Life for the American Jewish Committee, who has known Joel since they were both working at YU in the mid-1970s. Bayme taught history at the time and Joel was director of alumni affairs.

“His track record at Hillel is encouraging,” Bayme said, “in that he turned it around, infused it with spirit and was a superb manager of people. He also had a magnetic effect on leading philanthropists, a key ingredient for a successful university president.”

Joel’s challenges, insiders say, will include providing greater balance within the school, strengthening the secular faculty and restoring ideological vibrancy to modern Orthodoxy and its belief in the importance of living in two worlds.

This is certain to create tension among some of the rabbis and their students, as YU and its student body have been perceived as moving closer to the more authoritarian form of Orthodoxy in recent years on issues like the status of women, attitudes toward non-Orthodox Jews and encountering modernity.

Partly as a result of this shift, Rabbi Saul Berman and others founded the organization Edah in the past five years, with the slogan “the courage to be modern and Orthodox”; Joel has been associated with the organization. A new Orthodox rabbinical school, Chovevei Torah, was created in Manhattan by Rabbi Avi Weiss, seeking a similar mission of encouraging open intellectual inquiry and expression in a halachic framework.

These institutions probably would not have been formed had YU maintained the direction it took prior to the illness and death of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (known simply as The Rav), who was the intellectual leader of the modern Orthodox movement and who espoused the values of secular and religious studies.

In practical terms, Edah is seen as a threat to YU by the RIETS faculty, and there was much discussion on campus in recent days as to where Joel, whose temperament and ideology seem aligned with Edah, would stand on the organization and its goals. Joel reportedly told the RIETS that he would disassociate himself from any organization RIETS objects to.

In the interim, Lamm will stay on as rosh yeshiva. Widely respected for his religious and secular scholarship, Lamm has enjoyed a long tenure that will be remembered most for his saving YU from financial bankruptcy in his first days at the helm and increasing its endowment from $8 million to holdings worth about $1.4 billion.

During his presidency, enrollment at YU and Stern College doubled, and he became a voice of moderation in the religious wars that were waged, within YU and throughout the Jewish world, on issues ranging from homosexuality to the question of who is a Jew.

Even critics would admit that Lamm has overseen tremendous growth at YU, while even supporters would acknowledge that he has paid less attention to internal and administrative problems in recent years and tolerated the move to the right among the rabbis. According to Bayme, YU, like modern Orthodoxy itself, has become “institutionally vibrant and ideologically weak,” noting that while synagogues and schools are flourishing, the growth has come at the expense of allowing “the dominant voices” to come from “the more ultra-Orthodox” segments.

That is why the machinations at YU are being watched so closely recently in many segments of the Jewish community as the school’s forces of tradition and modernity — once said to be in synthesis — struggle for its future.

Continental Divide

Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark experienced something of an epiphany last month in North Carolina, a continent away from his Southern California home. It was a spiritual journey he shared with a large group of his fellow Reform rabbis.

The rest of the Jewish community will feel the journey’s effects soon, and for a long time to come. Whether it’s spiritual uplift or jet lag you’ll be feeling, though, depends on where you’re coming from.

Goldmark, acting director of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, had left Los Angeles March 26 for a convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinic group. The hot topic was a proposal to endorse gay marriages. Goldmark planned to vote “no.” “Like many rabbis, I’m not comfortable with it,” he said. “I reserve marriage and kiddushin for a man and a woman.”

But by the time it came to a vote March 29, Goldmark was ready to vote “yes.” What changed his mind? For one thing, the emergence of a compromise text, saluting rabbis who won’t consecrate gay unions along with those who will. It also dropped the term “marriage,” preferring “same-gender unions.”

The other transforming event was a gay-led worship service that included a “Kaddish” — memorial prayer — for long years of anti-gay persecution. “I was so moved,” Goldmark said. “And I found myself feeling a need to do what I thought was the right thing.” The right thing, he decided, was to vote for the resolution, “to show support for my gay and lesbian colleagues.”

Even so, it wasn’t an easy decision. Israeli Reform rabbis had long warned that endorsing gay marriage in the U.S. would hurt their battle for acceptance over there. There were also warnings of new tensions among U.S. Jews, particularly between Reform and Orthodoxy.

Such worries had stalled a similar measure in 1998. Caught between gay-rights activists on their left and Israeli traditionalists on their right, the rabbis had put the resolution on hold.

Opponents of gay unions tried the same argument when the issue resurfaced this year: We nearly brought down an Israeli government to defend our interests; now we happily ignore those same interests.

This time, gay activists weren’t sitting still. “My goal is not to please the black hats of our religion,” said Rabbi Denise Eger of West Hollywood, head of the Gay and Lesbian Rabbinic Network. “The reality is that the haredi community will never accept Reform Judaism. I don’t believe that’s the playing field we should be playing on anyway.”

Timing played a role, too. Reform leaders decided this was a safe year to vote on the issue, because Israelis were too preoccupied to notice. The strategy appears to have worked, at least so far. “We do not seem to have appeared on their radar screen,” said Rabbi Charles Kroloff of New Jersey, rabbinic conference president. “I believe the fear was really overemphasized.”

That view may be far too optimistic.

Not far from the conference’s New York headquarters — yet separated by oceans of incomprehension — Orthodox rabbis were studying the Reform decision with mounting outrage.

“Judaism’s laws cannot be abrogated by fiat or majority vote or redesigned to fit a current behavior pattern,” declared the Rabbinical Council of America, the nation’s main Orthodox rabbinic group, in a statement after the Reform vote. The council called the gay-commitment decision “beyond the pale of acceptable Jewish teaching and practice.”

Such fighting words are sadly commonplace in Orthodox-Reform relations, and Reform leaders tend to dismiss them. “Our detractors will remain our detractors and our friends will remain our friends,” said Rabbi Paul Menitoff, staff director of the Reform rabbinical conference. “The vote on this issue won’t change the facts on the ground.”

But this time, something may be shifting. Leading Orthodox moderates warn that the gay-union ruling could generate more anti-Reform hostility than anything seen in years. The heightened hostility, in turn, would greatly complicate the politics of religious pluralism, here and in Israel.

“I fear the worst,” said Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, an Orthodox rabbi who advocates interdenominational cooperation. “The intensity of feeling on this issue is very high in the Orthodox community. It’s not the kind of thing where you disagree. It’s the kind of thing where you disrespect.”

Some Orthodox leaders said the gay-union vote could prove even more divisive than Reform’s 1983 “patrilineal descent” decision, which recognized children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers as Jews. That flouted ancient rabbinic practice, they said. But with the new ruling, Reform leaders for the first time were actually endorsing — as opposed to merely tolerating or permitting — a behavior prohibited by the Torah.

“Patrilineal descent is an issue of defining who is a Jew,” said Rabbi Rafael Grossman of Memphis, a former president of the Rabbinical Council of America. Gay commitment, on the other hand, “goes to the very root of Jewish morality, in the sense of defining what is moral behavior. To give sanction to something like this breaks the moral fiber of Judaism. Why would they do this?”

Many Reform rabbis found the Orthodox outrage just as bewildering. “We have done a great deal of reinterpreting of Torah, within all the denominations,” said Rabbi Shira Stern of New Jersey, head of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, which sponsored the gay-union resolution. “Now the rules of sexuality need to be reinterpreted.”

Moreover, they noted, individual Reform rabbis have been consecrating gay relationships for years. “All we’ve done is go public,” said Goldmark, the Californian. “What’s the big deal?”

Going public is precisely the big deal, Orthodox rabbis reply, because it implies endorsement. Besides, said Grossman, “What kind of image does it give the Jewish community when a major branch breaks with universal morality in this way?”

Amid the outrage and recriminations, a curious phenomenon was barely discernible. Numerous Reform rabbis seconded the Orthodox view that same-sex relations were outside the norms of Judaism. But few would say so openly — fearing, they said, to be attacked as bigots. Instead they spoke of Reform’s Israeli strategy.

At the same time, some Orthodox rabbis agreed that homosexuality was an involuntary trait that ought to be accepted, if only in private. But none would say so openly, fearing to be attacked as permissive.

There’s a broad middle ground where Jews agree more than they disagree. It’s an area shaded in gray, tolerant but not permissive, rooted in tradition but not shackled to it.

It’s a place where Jews could sit together in peace, if only they weren’t afraid to leave their separate solitudes.

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal

A Gentler Orthodox Feminism

Where others saw three Orthodox women in groundbreaking careers and stylish hats, Rachel Pollack, 17, perceived something more. She had found role models.

“This is something I might want to pursue,” said the bright-eyed Ramaz senior after sitting through a session with the world’s first — and only — congregational interns at last weekend’s Third International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. At the session, the female interns, who perform some roles of assistant rabbis, discussed their own salary and status — as well as why, more than two years after the revolutionary appointments, only two synagogues employ such women.

For Pollack, struggling with issues of religious identity, the session hit home. “I want to know I could have an opportunity like this,” she said.

But the Ramaz student was among just a few dozen of the 2,000 participants in the two-day conference, sponsored by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), on hand to hear the frustration that sometimes crept into the voice of Julie Stern Josephs, a congregational intern at Lincoln Square Synagogue.

A title can make a difference, Josephs acknowledged to the small audience in one of 11 concurrent workshops offered on Sunday afternoon.

In her pastoral duties, she said, “When the rabbi comes, it’s ‘the rabbi came to visit,’ when I come, it’s ‘Oh, it’s just Julie.'”

That only a small group learned of the interns’ internal struggles seemed part of a larger pattern at this year’s feminism conference. In sometimes subtle ways, the JOFA organizers appeared to be striving for a gentler, kinder gathering than those held in 1997 and 1998. The more provocative issues were often not broadcast before an audience of hundreds, but tucked away in smaller workshops.

“The whole tone of the conference is much more positive this year,” said Ronnie Becher, an organizer. Becher admits it’s “absolutely disconcerting” that only a handful of the more than 800 Rabbinical Council of America rabbis offered free invitations showed up. But still, she says, this year, “We’re on the map. Our issues are clear. We’re a proven force. A proven entity.”

In many respects, the conference — which blends two worlds some consider as incompatible as oil and water — built on the successful ingredients of the first two. Like the previous gatherings, many participants left energized by the discovery of a like-minded community, dedicated to broadening women’s roles within the confines of Orthodoxy and adherence to halacha, or Jewish law. This sense of kinship was particularly strong for women from outside of the New York metropolitan area.

In her upstate synagogue, Sharon Strosberg, for example, felt unwelcomed when she tried to recite “Kaddish” for her parents. “I’m just amazed to see that there are so many Orthodox women willing to stick their necks out here,” said Strosberg, a first-time participant who attended with her 18-year-old son, Joshua.

Representatives from Australia, England, Holland and Spain, as well as Israel, reported on progress and setbacks, in seeking to advance change while adhering to rabbinical guidelines.

At times, however, the conference seemed to be deliberately pulling back, downplaying the more explosive issues. The devastating issue of agunot, or women trapped in bad marriages without a Jewish divorce, was tackled in many conference sessions. But unlike the two previous feminist conferences, the issue was not spotlighted at a plenary gathering.

In what was heralded as one of the more significant sessions devoted to agunot, Rabbi Adam Mintz of the Lincoln Square Synagogue discussed current techniques to help women in this plight, while Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, Israel, explained how hafgaat kiddushin, or annulment of marriage, might be employed at a future rabbinic court in Israel.

“There is enormous precedent for a very compassionate and understanding halacha that allows for a bet din [rabbinic court] to annul a marriage if the situation warrants it,” said Rabbi Riskin, who says he has taken only the initial steps toward creating this central agunah court.

Will it be established this year? Rabbi Riskin looked heavenward and rolled his eyes. “I ask for women-power to help.”

A Battle With No Winners

The High Holy Day period that just ended is, for most Jews, a time of solitary reflection, aptly called the Days of Awe for its mood of confrontation with the Eternal. For some of us, though, it’s also a season for family togetherness, a cozy time to snuggle up with the ones you love most.

That, at least, is what billionaire investor Ronald Perelman seemed to be telling the judge in New York family court last month, just before he stormed out of the courtroom for the umpteenth time in what has to be the ugliest custody war in America.

Perelman and his third wife, Patricia Duff, are locked in an epic battle over the moral upbringing of their daughter Caleigh. Perelman contends that Duff, who converted to Judaism when she married him, is not fully abiding by their prenuptial agreement to rear Caleigh as an observant Jew. He wants certain guarantees from the judge, like keeping Caleigh with him until after Yom Kippur ends at sundown.

Duff insists she is giving the child a genuinely Jewish upbringing, even if it doesn’t meet Perelman’s expectations of Orthodoxy. She claims Perelman is simply seeking control, which wouldn’t be out of character. Both say they just want what’s best for the child. They’ve been at it for three years. Caleigh is almost five.

Religious custody fights are one of the rawest nerves in American marital law. They touch every religion, cutting to the very core of parental love and loss. In one landmark 1938 case in Amarillo, Texas, a mother contested the father’s sole custody on grounds that he was a Jehovah’s Witness. She claimed he wouldn’t let the child salute the flag or celebrate Christmas. The judge agreed, and ordered the child placed in an orphanage.

That decision was overturned on appeal. Thanks to it and others like it, courts now tend to let parents pass their values to their children unhindered. Most states give the last word to the parent who wins custody. The only limit is the child’s safety. One mother in Mississippi in 1977 had her custody challenged after she joined a snake-handling church. An appeals court judge ruled in her favor, saying there wasn’t much evidence the child would get bitten.

Even a prenuptial agreement won’t limit parents’ religious choices in most states. An influential 1989 Pennsylvania decision held that enforcing a religious prenuptial would violate “the First Amendment principle that parents be free to doubt, question and change their beliefs.” Courts now routinely permit parents nationwide to bring the kids to Mass en route to Hebrew school, or take them out for Chinese food after yeshiva. There are boundaries, though; in 1997, a Massachusetts court barred a born-again Christian father from teaching his children that their mother, an Orthodox Jew, was doomed to hell.

The exception is New York. Courts there routinely enforce prenuptial agreements, even when the parent’s beliefs have changed. That’s the core of Perelman’s case.

Looked at in the abstract, the Perelman-Duff case echoes some of the most painful dilemmas in modern Jewish life. Perelman, a prodigious giver to Orthodox Jewish causes, claims he’s fighting for his daughter’s Jewish soul. His lawyers suggest that Duff, despite her Orthodox conversion, never became fully Jewish. Duff, once a prominent Democratic fund-raiser, counters that civil courts shouldn’t be allowed to dictate a Jew’s level of religious observance, implicitly raising images of Israel’s religious pluralism battles.

But that’s in the abstract. When you get to specifics, this case is a one-of-a-kind doozy. Legal observers can’t remember a New York custody dispute this nasty or expensive. It’s already taken up most of Caleigh’s young life, and seems certain to scar the rest of it. Duff has been through 23 lawyers, by one count.

Perelman, 55, is one of the world’s richest men, with a fortune estimated between $4 billion and $6 billion. Associates describe him as domineering, acquisitive and “crudely charming.”

Raised in a Conservative home in Philadelphia, he’s become known for his passionate, if eccentric, devotion to Orthodoxy. He’s reputedly one of the biggest donors to Lubavitch. He’s also been known to throw parties featuring live actors posing as nude statues. Last winter, he reportedly flew a planeload of yeshiva students down to the Caribbean island of St. Bart’s, so he could have a minyan for Sabbath while reveling in the legendary topless paradise.

Duff, 45, is one of the most celebrated femmes fatales on the Washington-Hollywood glamour circuit. She’s been, by turns, a congressional aide and an aspiring actress. She reputedly introduced Gary Hart to Donna Rice. Even hostile interviewers feel compelled to comment on her beauty.

Duff and Perelman met in 1992. She was married, at the time, to movie executive Mike Medavoy, her third husband. He was married to gossip columnist Claudia Cohen, his second wife. They were wed in early 1995, a few weeks after their daughter — her first child, his sixth — was born. They separated 20 months later. They’ve been in and out of court ever since.

Religion is only half of their battle. They have a separate dispute raging over child support. Perelman pays $12,000 a month for Caleigh’s care, in addition to a reported $1.5 million a year in alimony. She wants the child support raised to $132,000 a month. She claims that since Perelman is a billionaire, while she is only a multimillionaire — she got about $20 million in the divorce settlement — she needs a little extra to give the tot a home life comparable to those visits with Dad.

Perelman dismisses the demands. He noted in one court session last spring that he fed Caleigh on $3 a day. That prompted a local tabloid to dub him “New York’s Cheapest Billionaire.”

In the end, if the Perelman-Duff battle teaches us anything it’s that you can have too much money. Both sides have spent endlessly on lawyers and publicists to ruin each other’s reputations. Perelman has accused Duff of taking Caleigh to an Easter egg hunt and baking cookies on Passover. Duff has accused Perelman of insisting Caleigh come for visits even when he wasn’t there. Court-appointed psychologists have testified that they’re both suspicious, self-centered tyrants. Nobody wins, least of all the child.

How the judge will rule is anybody’s guess. Some wags are suggesting the best path to follow would be the Amarillo precedent: send the poor kid to an orphanage.

Or better still, one legal expert suggests, send the parents.

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal. Gene Lichtenstein is on vacation.

Los Angeles 5758Making the Tough Sell

There was noquestion: Of the three rabbis sitting up on the dais at UCLA Hillel,Rabbi Shlomo Riskin had the toughest sell. After all, audiences whocome to hear panels on pluralism usually bristle at Orthodoxy’sseeming exclusivity.

But, true to self, Riskin didn’t let theanticipation of a hostile reaction stop him. After his colleaguesfinished their presentations, Riskin took the mike out of its holder,stood up and positioned himself to win the audience over with apassion that animated each of his stories, jokes, and subtle yetpowerful points.

But, as those familiar with his accomplishmentsknow, Riskin is used to the tough sell — and used to winning. He isa master builder, and, usually, before anyone can blink at hissometimes controversial notions, he has created yet anotherinstitution in which his philosophy can become a living, breathingJudaism.

On a recent trip to Los Angeles from Efrat, theWest Bank city just outside of Jerusalem that he helped found and nowleads, Riskin sat down to talk about his latest ideas, squeezing aquick interview into a packed schedule of speaking engagements andprivate fund-raising meetings.

At the top of his list is the first women’s hesderyeshiva — a joint program of army duty and Torah study, parallel tomen’s programs. Fifty women have already signed on, demonstrating tothe “Israeli public at large that Torah-committed people are ready toaccept every challenge that the State of Israel has to offer,” saysRiskin, 57.

The hesder program at the new $8 million campus inthe Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem is one of several cutting-edgeprograms of Ohr Torah Stone, Riskin’s 2,000-student educationalempire that includes a women’s division with an accrediteduniversity, a program for foreign students and advanced Torahscholarship, plus a men’s division with yeshivot and rabbinicprograms.

Over the past seven years, Midreshet Lindenbaum,the women’s division, has trained more than 50 women to be advocatesin rabbinic courts, a presence aimed at alleviating some of theantagonism women often face in a court, or beit din, where alldivorces in Israel are adjudicated.

The advocates are especially useful for cases ofagunah, where a husband denies his wife a Jewish divorce contract oruses it as a tool of extortion.

Riskin, an engaging speaker and convincingspokesman, has also developed a legal center and hot line, staffed bythe advocates, and has helped in establishing a beit din to dealexclusively with agunah cases.

Riskin says the advocates are a good example ofhow a quiet revolution is changing the halachic community. When theprogram began, rabbinic support seemed a long way off.

“But the rabbis made a complete turnabout,” saysRiskin, his round face breaking into a smile. “Chief Rabbi Lau cameto our graduation last June. We have close to 50 graduates who areaccepted by every religious court in the country.”

Riskin is hoping that the same gradual acceptancewill come to the poskot, or female halachic authorities, he is nowtraining at Midreshet Lindenbaum.

The women will issue halachic responses aboutShabbat, kashrut and, most importantly, issues of family ritualpurity.

“In the interest of modesty, having women beingthe first one to make the decision on intimate women questions is, Ithink, a most important advance,” says Riskin, who is married and hasfour children.

While many see his policies, especially on women,putting him on the leftmost wing of Orthodoxy, Riskin says he feelsunique but not unrepresentative.

“I think the Judaism I am talking about — whichis uncompromising halachic Judaism, but within halacha gives a greatdeal of room for women to express themselves religiously, for dignityof human rights — my sense is that this is very much indemand.”

He points out that his past innovations are nowmainstream, such as teaching women advanced Talmud, which hepioneered in the late 1960s at Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York(which he founded and led for more than 20 years).

Still, he often hears, “If only more Orthodoxrabbis were like you.” Following his plea for dialogue and mutualrespect, that is what he heard from University of Judaism ProvostRabbi Elliot Dorff, who accompanied Riskin and Rabbi Richard Levy,president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of AmericanRabbis, on the UCLA Hillel panel, which discussed pluralism andIsrael’s conversion.

The rabbis offered different interpretations ofhow far Israel had come in accepting the recommendations of theNeeman Commission, which proposed establishing learning centers whererabbis from all the major denominations would teach potentialconverts, but where Orthodox rabbis would perform the actualritual.

While Levy and Dorff both seemed pessimistic,since the chief rabbinate had not endorsed the institution, Riskinfinds significance in the fact that the rabbinate did not dismiss theinstitution and has even said it would accept the converts.

Riskin says the idea is “brilliant” because itshows the movements can learn and teach together while stillmaintaining one standard of who is a Jew.

“We can disagree about certain details about theShabbat and festivals and rituals, you can be Orthodox, Conservative,Reform, Reconstructionist or secular, but my child can still marryyours.”

That is no small detail, Riskin told the raptaudience in a deliberately hushed tone. “That expresses the fact thatwhat unites us is far more significant than that which dividesus.”

L.A. 5758 Briefs

Ten For Chai

Usually whenthe Chai Center packs a banquet hall, it’s for a seder, High Holidayservices, or some other Jewish celebration open to “any Jew thatmoves.” But when people jam into the hall this weekend, they will becelebrating the Chai Center itself, and its quirky, lovable leaders,Olivia and Rabbi Shlomo “Schwartzy” Schwartz. It’s the tenthanniversary for the outreach center with a sense of humor, a love ofJudaism and a bold creativity that adds a stroke of neon to L.A.’sJewish landscape.

Sunday, March 29. Call (213) 937-3911 forbanquet information, or (310) 391-7995 for Chai Center activities.— Julie Gruenbaum Fax,Religion Editor

Do Unto Others

On ShabbatHaGadol, the Saturday before Passover, people are usually preoccupiedwith their own needs. Rabbis throughout the city and the country willbe reminding congregants about the needs of others, and how thoseneeds are met by Jewish Family Service.

“As we approach Passover we need to think aboutpeople who are on the outside looking to find a way in,” says SallyWeber, director of Jewish Community Programs for JFS.

About a dozen L.A. synagogues will host speakersfrom JFS, while many others will distribute literature.

Shabbat HaGadol, April 3-4. For moreinformation, call JFS at (213) 761-8800.— J.G. F.

Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, above, and his wifeOlivia (not pictured) will be honored for their work bringing Judaismto “any Jew that moves.” Left, a community action worker for JewishFamily Service’s Alcohol and Drug Program, a program helping peoplesuffering from addiction and their families in the Jewishcommunity.

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Other Voices

The evening following the final session of theSecond International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy, I attendeda small family dinner and celebrated the wedding of a SatmarChassidic couple. Among the guests were men with long curledpayot (it’spronounced “payyes” there), and some wearing shtreimels (the fur hat worn bysome Chassidic men). All of the women’s heads were covered with wigs,and some even wore a small pillbox hat atop it, according to thedecree of their respective rabbis. The women were elegantly (butmodestly) attired in unrevealing clothing and were segregated fromtheir men by tall walls. While the men sang joyously, the womengossiped. When the men rose to dance, most of the women werevicariously reveled by staring at them through the cracks in thewall. (Of course, it is forbidden for the men to watch the womendance, and not one single male deigned to take even a quick”peek.”)

The contrast between the ideas expressed anddebated at the conference just a few hours earlier and the interestsof those 60 Chassidic family members at the dinner could not possiblyhave been greater. What could the Orthodox feminists offer thefervently Orthodox?

Indeed, I discovered that only one person at thedinner had even heard of the conference, and she was under themisconception that the reason for the event was because women wantedto change the Torah.

Wishing to debunk that fallacy, I wondered how Icould possibly communicate to these women the concerns of those 2,000attendees at the conference. When I finally told them of thefeminists’ concerns about the agunah issue (the fate of a womanunable to obtain a Jewish divorce unless she accedes to the demands,including extortion, of her husband), I saw a glimpse of recognitionon the faces of these Chassidic women. It was obvious that they, too,suffer from this indignity.

When I mentioned the issues of domestic violencediscussed at the conference, the women at the dinner told me shockingstories of incest, pederasty, and sexual and physical abuse of thewomen in their own insular community — the very heart of Boro Parkand Williamsburg. Now we were speaking a common language.

Indeed, the conference did address issues ofgender bias in the language of prayers and traditional texts, thehalacha of women’s tefillah (prayer) groups, the expansion of women’sroles in the synagogues, et al. But these concepts were as foreign toChassidic women as a visit from a Martian.

Similarly, the subjects covering Talmudiceducation for high school girls would have been useless in the Satmarcommunity, where the girls’ schools do not even allow textual studyof the Pentateuch and the Commentaries, let alone the Talmud. Thesessions on rabbinic ordination of women and the eliminating of kolisha (women’s singing voices, which Orthodox men may not hear) wouldbe equally alien to such fervently Orthodox women.

But the sessions on domestic violence and theplenary conference on the agunah would have been lauded — notnecessarily because all would agree on the solutions proposed, butbecause all women in the Orthodox world can identify with theseconcerns, whether or not they wear a wig, cover their arms, or danceat segregated celebrations.

The commonalities, rather than the differences ofideology, were the central focus of the conference. There was trulysomething for everyone. The standing-room-only sessions attested tothe success of the endeavor. The attendance doubled from last year’sconference, which further proved that the identification of feminismwith Orthodoxy was no longer perceived as an oxymoron.

Has the concept of feminist Orthodoxy reached thelevel of the mainstream? It is highly unlikely that Chassidic womenor traditionalist Orthodox women will ever embrace that terminologyand adopt it as their own. But feminism, in and of itself, iscertainly not defined equally in the world. Traditional women’ssightline-impaired Orthodox synagogues may alienate some ModernOrthodox women, yet, to others, this type of separation creates asource of spiritual comfort. While some are offended by the sexistlanguage in prayers, others embrace it purely for its rich tradition.While some demand acknowledgment of women’s roles in the tradition byadding the mother’s name during various celebrations or honors,others are content to accept the status quo.

However, the impatience with rabbinicfoot-dragging on the resolution of the agunah problem, and thefrustration with rabbis insensitive to the plight of battered womenis a uniting force that fuels the movement.

As further attestation to the success of theconference, mainstream Orthodox rabbis, not previously identifiedwith the feminist cause, spoke at the conference and discredited someof the many myths of meta-halacha. One couldn’t help but laugh when arabbi described how a synagogue, during the middle of this century,was forbidden by its rabbi to use electricity (on the weekdays)because electricity had never been used in his grandfather’ssynagogue.

It would be a gross exaggeration to imply that allthe goals set at last year’s conference had been achieved. But theprogress made was tangible and substantial. Women’s voices arebeginning to be heard in the search for halachic solutions to variousproblems affecting women. Two Modern Orthodox synagogues have hiredfemale “congregational interns,” whose job descriptions closely mimicthose of an assistant rabbi as counselor and teacher (one of themeven gives sermons from the pulpit). For the first time in Israel, agroup of women are about to receive certification to interpret thelaw (to become a posek) in the area of Niddah (ritual purity) — awelcome innovation to women who are reluctant to address these highlyprivate issues to a male rabbi.

But the most significant progress reported hasbeen the single new solution to the agunah issue. Rabbi EmanuelRackman, whose courage to withstand the enormous rabbinic oppositionwas lauded even by those who disagreed with him, described themethods used by his year-old beit din — of annulling the marriage onfraud grounds, thus eliminating the husband’s power to extort for aget (Jewish divorce). Not surprisingly, this beit din has beensubjected to enormous criticism, and there has been no other beitdin, to date, to follow suit. (As one fervently Orthodox rabbi wasreputed to privately admit, if they freed all women who were beatenby their husbands, there would be too many divorces.)

The most vocal opponents in the fervently Orthodoxrabbinic community were invited, but refused to attend theconference.

The forum did provide the opposing voices of twoModern Orthodox rabbis. One feared the “annulment” solution, claimingthat it would place all marriages in jeopardy. Instead, he lauded theJerusalem beit din, which reputedly freed “tens” of women a year bythreatening to jail or withhold drivers’ licenses from recalcitranthusbands. (Of course, this rabbi neglected to mention that theestimated 5,000-plus agunot in Israel would have to wait as long as500 years for their freedom at the pace of the Jerusalem beit din.)Another rabbi’s objections to the annulment solution was his concernthat this “quick” progress, without the “process” of enlisting thesupport of many other Orthodox rabbis, is doomed to failure. But whatappears to rabbis as being too hasty in resolving painful women’sissues is seen as slow motion to Orthodox feminists.

If there could be a short summation of thistwo-day conference, it would be the urgent need for Orthodoxfeminists to repair the world (tikkun olam) — so that 51 percent ofthe Orthodox population (that is, the women) is not shoved silentlyinto the realm of passivity in the face of oppression; so that womenwho wish to pray in a tallit and read the Torah at the Western Wallmay do so; so that religious women scholars will be taken equallyseriously with their male counterparts in areas of education,interpretation of halacha, and spiritual quest; so that Jewish lawwould no longer sanction a man’s right to withhold the get or allowhim to extort his wife for a Jewish divorce; so that the limits ofhalacha are stretched to ensure that Orthodox women need not feelthey are more valued contributors to the secular world than they areto the religious one.

Finally, it was perceived that only the feministOrthodox appeared to have the courage and the ability to reach out tothose on the religious right and the religious left, and they’re theones who appeared to be the torchbearers for tikkun olam between theOrthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist. Whether thesegoals are attainable in the near future, or indeed ever, willprobably be the subject of the next International Conference onFeminism and Orthodoxy.

Alexandra Leichter is a family law attorney inBeverly Hills and is a member of the Modern Orthodox Westwood VillageSynagogue.