The Narrow Halakhic Bridge – new review

July 15, 2020

Midwest Book Review ● The Judaic Studies Shelf

Synopsis: Halakhah is the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from the written and Oral Torah.

The role of halakhah is to serve as a bridge between our eternal Torah and the world’s changing realities. However, the dizzying pace of developments in postmodern society and the obsession with personal freedom are generating unprecedented gaps between Torah and reality, challenging our obedience to Halakhah, contributing to the erosion of rabbinic authority and causing a growing confusion within our community.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Importance of the Community Rabbi – new review

July 15, 2020

Rabbi Ari Enkin ● Torah Book Reviews

In “The Importance of the Community Rabbi” Rabbi Daniel Sperber, whose prominence and accomplishments need no introduction, argues vigorously for today’s rabbis to rule more leniently. He presents a fascinating and engaging treasury of hundreds of lenient halachic rulings throughout the ages. Rabbi Sperber argues that issues like sensitivity to people’s feelings, human dignity, “changing circumstances” and “ko’ach d’heteira” should be given more weight in halachic decision making. The precedents are there, clearly presented one after the other with seemingly no end.

Read the rest of this entry »

Perilous Escape – new review

July 14, 2020

Paul Vogel ● Midwest Book Review

Synopsis: “Perilous Escape: My Journey from Nazi Europe to Freedom” is the true and compelling account of Dr. Chaskel Wyszkowski and his courageous escape from Poland in the dark years of World War II.

Read the rest of this entry »

Was Yosef on the Spectrum – new review

July 14, 2020

David Greenberg ● Israel Journal of Psychiatry

Ever since the Bible was written there have been attempts to understand the characters and events of its narrative. Indeed, in The Ancient Commentary on the Bible (1993) Hananel Mack suggested that as long as there has been Bible, there has been commentary, whether Deuteronomy commenting on the preceding books of the Torah, or Psalms and Chronicles on earlier sections of the Bible. The Apocryphal books continued the tradition, as did Philo’s Bible commentary (first century Alexandria), Josephus, then the many forms of Midrash, and since Saadiah Gaon (10th century Babylon), a steady flow of authors, the most known among Jewish readers being Rashi (11th century France), Ibn Ezra (12th century Spain) and Ramban (13th century Spain), and most recently Nehama Leibowitz, who have all published commentaries on the Bible text. While each commentator may ask some unique questions, many clearly duplicate each other. How is it that each commentator emerges with different answers, and that often they are distinctive to that author? The answer must lie not only in each new questioner emerging from a particular cultural background but also having different responses that are suitable for their readership: Rashi writing at the time of the Crusades and the destruction of Jewish communities, Ibn Ezra having travelled the world and seen many cultures, etc.

Read the rest of this entry »

Wash Your Hands! The Corona Commandment

July 13, 2020

Aryeh Siegel ● The Times of Israel blog

“The priests must not become spiritually unclean by contact with a dead person” [Leviticus 21:1]

Wash your hands! That is the commandment of the Corona era.

In the Middle Ages a person could go half his or her life without ever washing hands. But Jews washed their hands each day after awakening and whenever they ate bread. The most fatal pandemic in recorded history was the Black Death in the 14th century. At that time, fewer Jews died than their Christian neighbors. This has been partly attributed to Jewish ritual hand-washing. (See https://www.jewishhistory.org/the-black-death.)

Of course, Jews in the Middle Ages washed their hands not because of sanitary reasons. They did so out of a commitment to halachic tradition. Was it “good luck” that this saved them from disease? Or is there some providential or mystical connection? I don’t know. But the Kabbalah does reveal a hidden meaning of ritual hand-washing. And our worldwide Corona condition could well benefit from the spiritual healing invoked by its esoteric intention.

The blessing for hand-washing is peculiar. We bless God for instructing us “on the lifting up of hands.” Why “lifting up”? The instruction is to wash our hands. What does it mean to “lift up hands”?

When do we lift up our hands? When we surrender. When we give a blessing. Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Gottlieb* explains that in the Kabbalah the hand is considered to be the archetypal vessel. Hands are used for taking and receiving. When we surrender, we promise not to take. When we place our hands on another’s head in blessing, we ask that he or she be the receiver.

So when we wash our hands, we “lift up” our desire to receive. We raise it spiritually. According to Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag (Baal Hasulam)*, this is the essential teaching of Judaism. All of the Torah and the mitzvot – every word and every detail – come to teach us to dedicate ourselves to giving. Our intention in receiving is only to pass it on somehow. With this intention, a Jew is instructed to start each day. And before we receive strength from eating bread, we bring to mind our intention to use that strength to give and not to take.

But wait. Doesn’t the ritual washing have something to do with tumah – spiritual uncleanliness? Yes, precisely. The Kabbalah views tumah as an expression of selfish desire to receive. This is the cause of all our pain. This is the spiritual state we want to avoid – both individually and societally.

Our pure soul is like a priest within us that wants only to serve God. It calls to us to imitate the divine character of giving selflessly. But this soul can be “dirtied” when we succumb to our selfish desire to receive. We must preserve its purity by refusing to make contact with selfishness. For selfishness is spiritual death. This is the inner meaning of the above verse from this week’s Torah portion: The priests must not become spiritually unclean by contact with a dead person.

So let’s wash our hands of hoarding and hate. Let’s wash our hands of divisiveness and cut-throat competition. The Corona commandment is to give a little more and take a lot less.

*Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag (Baal Hasulam) is the greatest modern explicator of the Kabbalah. Some of his essays are translated to English in: “Giving – The Essential Teaching of the Kabbalah”. This book also contains a new commentary by Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Gottlieb, who is a disciple of the son of Baal Hasulam. His classes in Hebrew can be watched on the youtube channel ברכת שלום.


I Am For My Beloved: “Presenting once-taboo subjects to the religious community in a clear way”

July 13, 2020

Stephen G. Donshik ● Jerusalem Post

I Am for My Beloved, which focuses on married couples within the religiously observant community, is a book that is larger than itself. David Ribner and Talli Rosenbaum have found a way to discuss subjects that were once taboo and present them in a clear, direct and sensitive way to couples of all ages and religious orientations who want to enhance their intimate sexual relationships. 

The authors of I Am for My Beloved make a wonderful contribution to the literature on the meaning of the sexual relationship in marriage. They begin with a discussion of the meaning of intimacy and how it is understood within the marriage relationship. They also suggest ways to achieve intimacy in the context of a healthy sexual relationship.

Visit the Jerusalem Post website to read the rest of the article.


New Cookbooks Spark Kitchen Creativity

March 25, 2020

Sandy Eller ● Jewish Press

Who’s ready to shake things up? Stuck as we are in the final stretch of winter when things are still gray and gloomy, there’s nothing like contemplating some new culinary frontiers to chase the cold and the darkness away.

If your childhood was anything like mine, the phrase “waste not want not” was uttered on many an occasion, and was most often applied to food. Taking that concept into the kitchen, Yaffa Fruchter uses those very words as the title of her new cookbook, with 120 recipes that repurpose leftovers into foods that will hopefully have everyone at your table excited. In her introduction, Fruchter describes Waste Not Want Not as more of a cooking course, challenging home chefs to channel their creativity and find ways to use the odds and ends already lurking in their fridges, freezers and pantries and turn them into delicious goodies instead of just chucking in the trash.

Given the subject matter, it seems appropriate for this cookbook to open with a chapter on food safety since giving your family food poisoning by feeding them spoiled ingredients is definitely something to be avoided. Among her suggestions are avoiding anything that looks, smells or tastes off, marking dates on all leftovers, storing things in airtight containers, using extra caution when it comes to anything made with fish, meat or eggs and throwing out any questionable food items. Having gotten that bit of business out of the way, the sky is the limit in Waste Not Want Not, where the vegetables used to flavor your chicken soup are transformed into patties, kugels, veggies loaves and tzimmes, in addition to being used as the base for other soups. Have extra chicken that didn’t get eaten over Shabbos? Try turning it into blintzes, bourekas, shawarma, a fleishig pizza or even chicken sushi. I confess that I think my family would disown me if I tried the recipe for a chummus-like dish made out of pureed, leftover cholent and topped with fried onions, although I can’t see anyone objecting if I followed the recipe for gazpacho made with day old Israeli salad.

I have resurrected leftover challah by slathering it with garlic, salt, pepper and olive oil and making it into garlic bread on many an occasion and Fruchter also suggests turning it into bread crumbs, croutons or soaking it and squeezing it out for use in hamburgers, chopped liver and stuffing. And should you ever find yourself with too much cake on hand, Waste Not Want Not includes it as an ingredient in baked Alaska, cake pops, rum balls and that simcha favorite, trifle. Fruchter also peppers her book with practical advice, like rotating items in your pantry to use them before they expire, keeping spices in the freezer to maintain freshness and tips on salvaging burned items, doing her best to keep food waste to a bare minimum.


Was Yosef on the Spectrum

March 24, 2020

Professor Majia Nadesan ● Canadian Journal of Disability Studies

What is autism? Although autism is ultimately a diagnostic category, people who exhibit symptoms we now label as autistic are not restricted to the modern era (see e.g. Houston & Frith, 2000). Detailed historical analyses of the concept of autism have described a constellation of symptoms that were formally delineated and medicalized in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but pre-existed contemporary nosologies (e.g. Hacking, 2009; Nadesan, 2005; Waltz, 2013).

People experienced as “different” in their communication and social pragmatics have troubled normative expectations across recorded history. Samuel Levine’s Was Yosef on the Spectrum: Understanding Joseph Through Tora, Midrash, and Classical Jewish Sources argues that Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel from the Book of Genesis, was possibly autistic. Diagnosing people retrospectively as autistic raises complex “hermeneutic” or interpretive questions, including the possibility that our selective readings and attributions of recorded histories reveal more about our current concerns than past realities. Yet, while acknowledging this post-modern possibility of non-retrievable origins, the hermeneutic tradition offers a dialogic framework for understanding the mingling of the past and the present using the idea of a textual fusions of horizons (Gadamer, 2011). Roughly, the hermeneutic tradition holds that each reading of a historical text links the past and present, with the potential for a better understanding of the (“intersubjective” or social) self and its project forward. It is in the spirit of this hermeneutics that Levine’s text finds contemporary relevance.

Read the rest of this entry »

Open Orthodoxy founder tells story…

March 23, 2020

Yonah Jeremy Bob ● Jerusalem Post

Rabbi Avi Weiss has been running one campaign or another for decades.

Journey to Open Orthodoxy is likely his ultimate work, not only summarizing many of the issues where he has made a mark as the founder of open Orthodoxy, a spin-off of Modern Orthodoxy, but also showing his personal evolution along the way.

In this book, which traces his development from earlier writings, Weiss hits a veritable checklist of hot-button issues that virtually all Jewish denominations are struggling with in one way or another, but also seeks to present a unifying vision for his approach.

“My understanding of Open Orthodoxy goes well beyond such controversial issues as women and Halacha, interdenominational and interfaith relations and LGBT+ inclusion,” he writes.

He continues, “For me, Open Orthodoxy is holistic, all-encompassing, embracing the whole of Jewish spiritual, religious, halachic and national life.”

Walking a tightrope, Weiss said that he professes “an unequivocal commitment to the truth, validity and eternal applicability of the halachic system,” but that he disagrees with the Orthodox Right who view chemistry, language, medicine” and other areas of study as profane.

Rather, he says that “all disciplines are potentially aspects of the Torah. In a word, there is nothing in the world devoid of God’s imprint.”

Regarding gender issues, he explains that “Open Orthodoxy parts with the non-Orthodox community, as Halacha is not fully egalitarian.

However, he also pushes the envelope from his right flank, defending his ordaining of women with the title “rabba” (a feminine variation of rabbi).

This goes even farther than the title “maharat” (an invented title that gave women leaders recognition, but avoided called them rabbi), which is slightly less controversial in Orthodox circles, where women have traditionally not served as clergy. He states that the “rabba” title maintains female clergy within the role that Halacha permits them, but denotes “more dignity and respect” than other female clergy titles.

Fleshing out the difference between an Orthodox rabba and a non-Orthodox female rabbi, he writes: “In Conservative and Reform Judaism, a woman’s role is identical to a man’s role. In Orthodoxy, the roles of men and women in spiritual leadership overlap in 90% of areas, but there are distinctions.He explains that a rabba can conduct a wedding ceremony, including the reading of the ketubah (a form of a prenuptual agreement), but cannot sign the ketubah (which only men can do.) Moreover, he says that women can manage religious services in
ways permitted by Halacha, but do not count for the quorum of 10 required for a prayer service.

Another area where Weiss engages in a difficult balancing act is in addressing the homosexual community. On one hand, he does not conduct gay weddings. On the other hand, he writes that “to demand that gay people not have a life partner is, for many, akin to a death sentence,” stating that “we must do all we can to find a way for Halacha to help guide gay couples to live in loving partnerships.”

His vision of inclusivity is always broader than a specific issue. In the book, he says: “At its core, inclusivity sets Open Orthodoxy apart. This means interfacing with the nonaffiliated, other streams of Judaism and other faith communities… the elderly, and the physically and mentally challenged.”
Entering this minefield of pushing the envelope on so many contemporary issues, Weiss writes defensively at times as one who has already been attacked and is anticipating being criticized further.

Anticipating his critics, he says: “Open Orthodoxy is not simply about promoting particular views on cutting-edge issues; it also seeks out ways to achieve greater spiritual heights.”

He goes on to connect some of his trailblazing views to the Torah, remarking that, “like the Torah from which it emerges, Halacha is an eitz hayyim, a tree of life, and a living organism,” which is never afraid to confront “the needs of the day.”


He says that these institutions have “stepped into the breach. While many were convinced we could not succeed, we’ve exceeded expectations.”
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Weiss effused about his successors who have taken over the above institutions as well as the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, where he conducted services for decades.

At some point, Weiss swivels to controversial issues in Israel where he has staked out strong positions.

Though he said that his father revered the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, he criticizes it for “consolidation of rabbinic authority and use of coercive powers” which have “alienated much of Israel’s citizenry.”
More specifically, he rebukes the rabbinate for a situation where, “of the 300,000 Soviet émigrés to Israel who are not halachically Jewish, only 20,000 have been converted over the past 30 years.”

He accuses the Rabbinical Council of America of capitulating to what he calls the Israeli rabbinate’s unnecessarily onerous process.Weiss advocates easing the path to become Jewish and notes that the International Rabbinic Fellowship, which he founded, is a practical arm for implementing his more open approach to conversion.

Showing his character as a maverick, Weiss intersperses discussing down-to-earth controversies with a call to focus all efforts on soaring spiritually by embracing song and dance in prayer and an open-minded outlook emphasizing broader values like holiness and embracing other Jews as part of a person’s wide family.

Weiss’s book also has sections about religious Zionism, problems in the area of Jewish divorce, the Holocaust, Israel’s plight during the 2014 Gaza war and a variety of other issues he has dedicated himself to over the years.

One tension in the book is his explanation of his evolution.

For example, he says that he became more liberal on certain women’s issues after being confronted years later by a former student. The student shocked him with her explanation of why his earlier apologetics to convince her to accept parts of the prayer service which conflicted with her female identity had failed.

The arguments made by the woman were not new ones, so it appears that what changed Weiss’s view was hearing the human frustration of his former student, whom he respected.

It is not 100% clear from Weiss about where such emotional encounters should trump previously built intellectual foundations and how an open Orthodox person knows when to turn Right or Left.

But he did tell the Post that an open Orthodox approach to Jewish law serves as a bridge between past and present. It must be grounded seriously in tradition, but how a question is asked, addressing human pain and sizing up the sincerity of who is asking the question have a role to play.

In addition, to the extent there is no mathematical answer, this could also be because no one, in Jewish denominations or other faiths, really has a completely systematic answer for how to approach all of the many shocking and diverse new issues that modernity throws out at religion.

In any case, this book will be invaluable for anyone who wishes to understand the evolution of modern and open Orthodoxy and one of its trailblazers in recent and future decades.


State of the Heart – new review

March 17, 2020

Jack Reimer ● Boston Jewish Advocate

There are many miracles involved in Israel. The first, and the most obvious, is that it somehow still exists. The newspapers announced this week that Egypt—which is just one of the hostile countries that surrounds Israel—recently reached a total of a hundred million people! Hezbellah, which is a rabid foe of Israel, now has control of both Gaza and Lebanon. Iran, whose leaders have pledged to destroy Israel, continues to strive to become the dominant figure in the Middle East. And yet, Israel somehow survives.

When you count the population figures of Israel’s enemies, it is hard to understand how Israel has survived. There was one Zionist leader—I don’t remember which one it was—who said “that you do not have to believe in miracles to be a Zionist—but it certainly helps.”

And there is a second miracle that characterizes Israel and that is the one that this book tries to describe. It is true that there is corruption in the country. It is not a state composed of angels or of saints. It is true that there has been a coarsening of the discourse, not only on the floor of the Knesset where politicians berate each other with unseemly language, but on the crowded highways of the country, where impatient drivers yell at each other when they find themselves caught up in bottlenecks.

This is understandable in a country that imports a quarter of a million cars each year and that does not have the infrastructure to support this much traffic.

But what is hard to explain is what this book records: the amount of volunteerism in Israel, and the number of people who not only come to each other’s rescue in time of trouble, but the number of people who are ready to travel to any part of the world where people are coping with hurricanes or floods or tsunamis and need help.

You would think that a country which is constantly condemned in the United Nations would turn inwards and be concerned only with its own welfare and its own defense. You would think that a people that has so few allies in the world would become cynical and would not care when other nations are in distress. And yet, as this book documents, this is not so. Let there be a hurricane in Greece, or a fire in Australia, or a disaster at a public school in America, or a typhoon  in the Philippines, and Israelis are on the way.

Syria is one of Israel’s most implacable foes, and so you would think that Israelis would rejoice over the fact that it is caught up in a brutal civil war. You would think, to paraphrase what Henry Kissinger once said about the Vietnam War: “It is too bad that there can’t be two winners”. And yet Israel for years maintained what was called ‘a good fence’ on the border with Syria and took in thousands of civilians who were in need of surgery and urgent medical care. And it even sent doctors into Syria to set up emergency care facilities and to bring in medical supplies.

David Kramer records the experiences of some of these Israeli soldiers and civilians who have gone to places all around the world—some under the official sponsorship of the Israeli government and some as volunteers with ngos. Some of them are even in China right now, helping the scientists there cope with the Coronavirus, and helping the therapists cope with the traumatic stress that so many of the civilians are enduring there.

Will this book do any good in changing the attitudes of those countries that are hostile to Israel and who believe the stories that demonize Israel that are so widespread in the world today? Probably not, for many people think only once, and then repeat their points of view over and over again. But perhaps there are some people who understand that people are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.

And even if this book does not influence the rest of the world, we hope that it will influence Western Jews—especially those on college campuses—and help them to see the real Israel—which is a mixture of callousness and generosity, or corruption and kindness, which ought to be a model to the world.  

Jack Riemer is the author of two new books: Finding God in Unexpected Places and The Day I Met Father Isaac in the Supermarket, which are both available at Amazon.com