RRFEI Special Edition: Articles on Halakhic prenuptial agreements

Featuring:
Rabbi Michael Chernick

Responses by:
Rabbi Elliot Dorff
Rabba Sara Hurwitz
Rabbi Daniel Siegel
Rabbi Mark Washofsky
Rabbi Deborah Waxman

Dear Friends,

Rabbi Mark Levin, Editor-in-Chief, Rabbis for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel newsletter

This special series of RRFEI articles features an original work by Orthodox Rabbi Michael Chernick, Professor Emeritus of Rabbinic Literature at HUC-JIR, New York, with responses from Rabbis Mark Washofsky, Elliot Dorff and Daniel Siegel. Rabbi Washofsky’s affiliation is Reform; Rabbi Dorff’s is Conservative and Rabbi Siegel is with Jewish Renewal.

We hope you will respond and air your voice also on this essential issue of egalitarianism and halakhah. (I want to note that we invited two women scholars to respond, and neither had the time; but we hope for responses from our women colleagues and a robust discussion of these ideas.)

As we all know, being a “chained” woman (agunah) causes untold suffering, and justice demands we create a solution to this oppression. You will see in today’s article by Professor Michael Chernick an analysis of the problem, a review of the historical remedies and suggestions for moving forward.

In addition, we are bringing you responses from 3 current halakhic authorities:

Rabbi Mark Washofsky, Freehoff Professor of Jewish Law and Practice at HUC-JIR Cincinnati; Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Chairman of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards; and Rabbi Daniel Siegel, Founding Director, Integral Halachah Institute.

Shall we stay within the halakhic system to resolve the issues, or turn to civil courts? What is the appropriate role for civil courts in the Diaspora, and what is their role in the Jewish State? Some believe there should not be civil courts in Israel, that all law must be according to halakhah. Some would have that law change in structure, for example: that women be able to not only receive a get but give one as well, that both parties in a divorce should receive a divorce decree (get) from their spouse.

Clearly not only has the role of the streams of Judaism not been resolved in Israel, but the questions of which legal system to follow: civil or Jewish, who decides on halakhah, and how innovative can halakhah be in the modern context demand resolution.

RRFEI and Hiddush prefer a separation between religion and state, and in the case of marriage law, the possibility of civil marriage and divorce for those who choose. Clearly, as you will read in these articles, reasonable and reasoned rabbis may disagree,[...] read more

The equal opportunity to practise Judaism according every individual’s beliefs in Israel

Rabbi Mark Levin, Editor-in-Chief, Rabbis for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel newsletter

The vision of Hiddush and the Rabbis for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel opens with these words:

Imagine an Israel where Judaism blossoms in all its nuanced shades and colors; where religious and secular movements flourish side-by-side and those who explore beyond Judaism in search of meaning are able to forge new spiritual paths within Judaism.

We are the only organization in the Jewish world with the single mission of bringing pluralistic Judaism to the world’s only Jewish state. We take no sides in the competition between religious or secular Jewish movements. We believe that Israel is the State of all of the Jewish people who choose to live there, and we seek to enable Judaism to flourish by removing the interference or official state sponsorship of one stream or philosophy of Judaism over another. All Jews who believe Israel to be the homeland not only of Jews but of Judaism have a place among us.

A debate has flourished recently over ordination of women in the Orthodox world. Many of us possess strong opinions one way or another. Indeed, these ideas cross the streams. There are individuals within all of the movements who stake their claim on either side. Officially, according to the recent OU statement, the Orthodox movement opposes ordination of women as rabbis who issue piskei din, while the more liberal movements officially favor women’s ordination to be called by the title rabbi.

But the debate is considerably more nuanced within all of the streams. There are Haredim and Orthodox Jews who favor women’s ordination, and indeed there are women who function on a practical level as though they hold smicha. We used to say about Torah commentator Nehama Leibowitz, affectionately called just Nehama by all, that were she a man she’d have been Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel. Clearly the ferment in the Jewish world over this highly politicized issue roils, and feelings sometimes even set friends against one another.

Certainly we as individuals have our separate preferences and practices. But RRFEI has no dog in this fight. Our sole concern is that all of the Jewish people have the equal opportunity to practise Judaism according to their belief and conscience in the one place in the world dedicated to Jewish history and destiny. Judaism in Israel must be freed of state interference or intervention. The State of Israel must not favor one Jewish stream over another. To paraphrase Evelyn Beatrice Hall, ?I disapprove of what[...] read more

Marriage freedom advocacy: our most united effort

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oEric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, wrote in last week’s Jerusalem Post [link] about the nature of Israeli society. Is Israel the homeland of all the Jewish people, in which all of us can live according to our understandings of Judaism, or is there one recognized Jewish stream and the others have little or no authority?

Goldstein writes:

From its birth, Israel has stood as a source of inspiration and strength for Jews everywhere. And Israel reflects the aspirations of the entire Jewish people, about half of whom live outside of the Land of Israel. Our concern – shared by the 86 percent of Israelis who according to the Hiddush 2015 Religion and State Index support freedom of religion and conscience in Israel – is that these recent events will further distance many Diaspora Jews from the Jewish state and Israelis from Judaism.

Are the vast majority of North American Jews being detached from Israel as a practical matter?

We’re including here two readings for your seders [link], that evoke the hope of true freedom for Israel’s Jews: one by Rabbi John Rosove and the other from Gordon Silverman. Please feel free to distribute them to your congregation, or use them however you see fit.

Also included is this [link] to an English version of a Haaretz article reporting on the first analysis of the amount of money going to religious institutions in Israel. The amount is 13 times higher than the budget of Israel’s Religious Services Ministry, and 2.3% of Israel’s total budget. It shows how the Haredi parties and United Torah Judaism are attempting to educate Israel’s children according to their own version of history and dogma.

At stake is the vision of a Jewish State held by the vast majority of American Jews, and nothing less. Perhaps we don’t care about whether we can pray in our manner from our siddurim at the Kotel. Perhaps that’s not significant in people’s lives. But the larger point, our place in the mainstream of Jewish life, is critical to the future of our community and Jews worldwide.

While recent developments regarding the Kotel, conversions, and public mikvahs indicate a trend towards slowly undermining the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, the report on the budget demonstrates that the coalition agreement with the ultra-Orthodox is being used to educate Israel’s children toward a nationalist view of history, through both formal and informal education.

The campaign for civil and non-Orthodox marriages[...] read more

Now or never – the need for political pressure

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oI shuddered in the late 60s when I read Simon Herman’s prediction that Israeli and American Jewish societies were growing apart. Now I am watching the fruition of his prediction.

Narratives matter. This weekend’s Haaretz contained an article [click here] about how the informal education system under the Natanyahu regime is purposefully teaching their right-wing political narrative in informal Jewish education: like trips and workshops.

The same forces are pushing the narrative that the only legitimate Judaism, the only traditional legitimate Jewish expression, is the Haredi version of Jewish life, without any understanding of the progress of history, and shunning the modern world around them. Their Judaism is obscurantist and anti-modern, anti-democratic, sexist and racist. That’s how the narrative is unfolding.

Earlier this week, Haaretz published an article by Eric Yoffie [click here] in which he calls us to action because now is the time. Eric opens with this statement:

“The Western Wall agreement is collapsing, and it is time for Reform and Conservative Jews and all those who care about religious freedom and gender equality in Israel to go back to the barricades.”

He is not speaking metaphorically. It’s now or never, in Rabbi Yoffie’s opinion, and we had better pressure the Netanyahu government, because the only thing that makes a difference with the current Israeli government is political pressure.

At stake is the vision of a Jewish State held by the vast majority of American Jews, and nothing less. Perhaps we don’t care about whether we can pray in our manner from our siddurim at the Kotel. Perhaps that’s not significant in people’s lives. But the larger point, our place in the mainstream of Jewish life, is critical to the future of our community and Jews worldwide.

We would like to hear your version of this narrative. What actions, in responding to Eric Yoffie, ought we undertake? What actions, launched now, might unite us and make a difference? The breakthrough achieved just a few months ago, recognizing liberal Judaism as legitimate in Israel, is being so undermined as possibly become meaningless. Or, is there another narrative developing now?

Please, send us your opinions or post them on FB at the FB group for RRFEI (Rabbis for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel) [link], or to organizers@rrfei.org.

We look forward to hearing your thoughts.

How to proceed is the real question

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oIt’s reported by Leonard Baker that Mahatma Gandhi advised Rabbi Leo Baeck around 1938 that “All of the Jews of Germany at a given moment should commit suicide.” Gandhi thought the collective action would shock the conscience of the world. Gandhi clearly did not understand the Jewish nature. Baeck himself once commented that Judaism is the most life-affirming religion among world religions. With the possible exception of Masada, suicide is not the way Jews protest.

We may be entirely life affirming, as Baeck suggested, but we can be vicious with our opponents. It happened in the battles between the Hasidim and the Mitnagdim; it happened in the disputes between the Reformers and the traditionalists; and it is occurring again in Israel in the renewed fight over modernity and religious inclusion in Israel.

But, one might claim, the closer we get to making a difference, to threatening the establishment, the fiercer the fight will become.

I have little doubt that ultimately Israel will become an inclusive state among Jews. But when, and at what cost to North American and Israeli Jewry? The recent rhetoric over women’s status, the Kotel, gerut and mikvahs clearly demonstrates that the Haredi powers feel threatened by current events, most particularly at the Supreme Court. Now’s the time for action, but how to proceed is the real question.

Hiddush Chairperson, Rabbi Pam Frydman, suggests that we demonstrate the attitude we wish to receive through our own actions. It’s a different approach, so please let us know what you think.

We look forward to hearing your thoughts. Please send your comments to: organizers@rrfei.org

You may also find our FB group at: [link], and our website: www.rrfei.org.

Hateful comments expressed in Israel regarding liberal Jews

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oIn his monumental work on Jewish law, Menachem Elon writes:

“… Nahmanides coined an apt and pointed term that illuminates the meaning of ‘doing what is right and good;’ A person who acts according to the technical and formal sense of the Torah’s laws, i.e.: who carefully follows only the explicit rules but not those implicit from the general spirit of the text, is ‘a scoundrel within the bounds of the Torah,’ (naval bireshut ha-Torah). Therefore, ‘The Torah’s method is to particularize and genernalize; for after stating the specifics of the law relating to all dealings between men — you shall not steal, you shall not rob, you shall not cheat, and the other prohibitions — it states in general terms: ‘Do what is right and good.’ in order to establish an affirmative commandment to behave with uprightness and fairness and all that is involved in the concept of lifnim meshurat hadin,’ for the good of one’s fellow man.'”

(Menachem Elon, Jewish Law, vol. 1, p. 185, commenting on Ramban to Lev. 19:2)

The hateful comments expressed in Israel in the last few weeks regarding liberal Jews, and now repudiated by the Prime Minister, risk losing touch with fundamental guiding principles, e.g. — “not to hate your brother in your heart, and v’ahavta l’rey’echa kamocha.” These spokespeople and others look for increasing ways to justify their hatred of outsiders and other Jews, when there are plenty of principles (ahavat Yisrael, tselem elohim, lifnim meshurat hadin) that would reign them back in if they were looking for a peaceful path forward.

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and National Direction of the Anti-Defamation League sounds this alarm:

  • The status quo leads to cynicism about state institutions and the law itself.
  • It raises questions about Israel’s commitment to equality for all its citizens.
  • It undermines respect for religion itself in society.

Current hatred toward liberal Jews goes hand in hand with undermining the democratic underpinnings of the state intended by the Founders and assaulting Israel’s Supreme Court, both essential to North American understanding of the raison d’etre of a Jewish homeland.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Please send your comments to: organizers@rrfei.org

You may also find our FB group at: [link].

On Orthodox Conversion in the Twenty-First Century

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oA Conservative colleague once told me that the auspicious Rabbi Max Kiddushin told her that if a person says that s/he wants to convert a rabbi should convert that person immediately and teach the person later.

Little did I know at the time that Rabbi Chuck Davidson’s research, found in our newsletter of January 18th, would prove definitively that Rabbi Kiddushin’s viewpoint was well-founded in tradition, assuming that the person was as well-meaning as Rebecca Thornhill, the author of our principle article this week (available at IDEALS: Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.)

I believe the Jewish world is once again, after 200 years, struggling with the concept of Jewish authenticity in light of Modernity. Ms. Thornhill’s overwhelming sincerity should impress any Jewish stream, and modern Orthodoxy is fortunate that such a sincere, Jewishly motivated and educated woman has chosen Modern Orthdoxy to live out her Jewish life. I hope you will take the time to peruse the article and her arguments.

But why did we choose to reprint her article in the RRFEI Newsletter? For this reason: Ms. Thornhill demonstrates what is possible when national politics is removed from religion! She has placed herself squarely in the center of a vital and necessary discussion for the Jewish world: what constitutes authentic Jewish practice in light of modernity, and who is acceptable for conversion? Clearly, to skew a makhloket l’sheym shamayim, as is her article, because of power politics is not only a blight on the Jewish world, but harms Judaism’s capacity to adjust to modern realities and move forward, as demanded by a State that has not existed for 2 millennia.

This week, also, you will see updated discussions of issues surrounding the Kotel and the public mikvaot in Israel. How would these be different if the sole determining factor were the welfare of the Jewish people within a modern Jewish State? Suppose there were no central rabbinic authority defending its political power and its state supported budget? How might the Jewish people flourish as never before in the last 2,000 years?

[...] read more

Judaism can marry modernity to traditional life

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oFor more than a century Jews have debated how to guide the Jewish character of a sovereign Jewish State. Until recently, few thought seriously in terms of national halakhic standards. The Founders envisioned a Jewish ethic, not ritual Jewish practice.

In Anita Shapira’s 2014 book, Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel, she writes:

Just before the state was established, he [Ben-Gurion] reached agreement with the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael (Union of Israel) party on the celebrated “status quo,” assuring the state’s religious Jews (sic) that marital laws would be observed as they had been during the Mandate period and that the Sabbath and festivals would be part of the national calendar. Sensitive to tradition, he granted yeshiva students exemption from military service, but soon regretted it. In total contrast with his expectation that they would disappear completely, the number of yeshiva students steadily increased. But even though he sharply criticized the exemption, he did not cancel it. (p. 191)

In past issues we have dealt with allowing liberal conversions in Israel’s public mikvaot, seen 150 examples of rabbis over the last half millennium who issued piskei din stating that absolute adherence to halakhah was not required for conversion, and witnessed struggles with mehitzahs and kol ishah. Israel deals daily with the Jewish ethics of war and governing a minority population in the midst of conflict.

In this linked study: Secular Rights and Religious Wrongs? Family Law, Religion and Women in Israel, we witness the impact of a duel divorce system in Israel: one civil, one halakhic. The authors describe how when it works correctly, the halakhic system can be the most humane. Utilizing Israel’s Sanctions Law, and with cooperative courts, women can receive the compensation promised them in their ketubahs and have property settled quickly and equitably. In some cases even women from abroad have sent their cases to Israel to be adjudicated fairly. Many cases are recorded in which women prefer the halakhic courts to the civil court in order to expedite the proceedings and get on with their lives. These are rarely publicized in the North American Jewish world.

Yet, the idiosyncratic interplay of the ideologies of the judges and the desire for fairness comes overwhelmingly into play. Some judges simply prefer the rights of men over a woman?s rights. Organizations like [...] read more

The right of Jews to control our own religious lives

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oThe Chief Rabbinate under Rabbi David Lau has instructed all the public mikvahs in Israel to not permit any conversions from any movement [link in Hebrew], and in that manner to prevent Reform conversions to Judaism. This in the aftermath of the Israeli Supreme Court decision two weeks ago permitting conversions in public mikvahs by all of the streams equally. The Orthodox would, under Rabbi Lau’s request, continue to have access to private mikvahs, to which Reform Jews have no access.

The attacks on Reform Judaism and Liberal Judaism in general are heating up in the aftermath of the Kotel decision by the Israeli government, the mikvah decision by the Supreme Court, and the CCAR convention just held in Israel, which organized a liberal prayer service at the Southern Wall involving hundreds of participants.

In Dr. Alexander Guttmann’s book The Struggle over Reform in Rabbinic Literature he states that the early debates between the Reformers and the Orthodox ultimately had little effect, and when they figured that out, the leaders stopped arguing and proceeded to work within their own movements. He also stated that the common people had little interest in the arguments, and continued to intermingle with one another. Why have the disputes started up again? Obviously, the principle question is who controls the religious lives of Jews. It’s not primarily theological: everyone may continue to hold their own theology privately and may continue his/her own practice. The question is: who controls the religious life of the Jewish people?

While there have been other epochs in Jewish history in which specific issues rose to the fore, only now has this fight occurred in the first Jewish State in 2 millennia. The flash points of conflict, the use of mikvahs or the Kotel, are not as important as the right of Jews to control our own religious lives. This struggle involves the destiny of all Jews, even though they may be unaware it’s occurring. How ironic that the principle battle for the right of Jews to control their religious lives is taking place in Israel. But it’s our destiny as rabbis to play a critical role in that existential battle on behalf of all of our people. Jews must be allowed the right to religious self-determination.

Please post your comments, or send them to: organizers@rrfei.org. Also, see our FB group:[link].

The “Disputatious” Kotel

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oThe so-called compromise over prayer access to the Kotel has turned been attacked as giving away too much, as irrelevant to the real religious dispute in Israel, and as exclusionary of Orthodox women who refuse to give up their praying place. It has been lauded as a great advance, as a first in the legal recognition by the State of Israel of Liberal Judaism, as a triumph after 25 years of campaigning and as a breakthrough moment for Diaspora Jewry.

But will it happen? What forces are arrayed against its implementation?

This week’s, we share Israel HaYom’s superb analysis of the forces fighting against implementation. There is a link to the full article in Hebrew, and for those who would like a short-cut, I have summarized each of the opponents position’s in English.

English summary (by paragraph) by Rabbi Mark H. Levin

Click here for original Hebrew article

  1. Many forces are arrayed to oppose the decision.
  2. Although the pluralistic forces achieved official recognition for the Kotel, and attained representation on the Council that will run the Southern Plaza, many impediments have appeared.
  3. Because of a last minute, hidden insertion in the agreement, the Minister of Religious Services will be responsible for developing the regulations. That?s Minister David Azoulay, who last summer denounced Liberal Judaism. Azoulay has indicated he will pass the decision making to the Sages Council of Shas. If it passes there, as Aryeh Deri has great influence with the rabbis, Azoulay is bound by law to consult with the Chief Rabbinate.
  4. The Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi, Rabbi David Lau, has called the decision a mistake because it ignored the Chief Rabbinate. The Chief Rabbinate must express its opinion before Minister Azoulay will sign the regulations.
  5. Should Minister Azoulay delay the decisions, it?s likely that the government will pass the authority to appoint the 6 representatives of the public to the new Western Wall Council, from the Reform and Conservative streams and the Women of the Wall, to Natan Sharansky as head of the Jewish Agency. This will raise the question of whether the Council, with the help of the Jewish Agency, will stick to the current plans if the government avoids recognizing them. Will the matter then go to the Supreme Court, which could
[...] read more