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.


Food for Thought

March 18, 2020

Haim A. Gottschalk, Olney, MD ● AJL News and Reviews

From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah is a collection of short essays on each individual Bible parashah (passage of scripture). Biblical scholar Diana Lipton assembled a diverse group of Jewish scholars, divided evenly between men and women. Each scholar wrote a short essay, one scholar per parashah (with one exception) about food, and Lipton follows up with a verse by verse commentary on issues that the essays did not cover. Lipton also explains in the introduction that the book does not address what the ancient Israelites ate, sacrifices being discussed, nor kashrut.

The work is not a cookbook. What the work does and does well is give a derash (interpretation) through the prism of food for each parashah (excluding double parashiyot and holidays). The scholars certainly give you plenty of food for thought.

This book is a welcome addition to any library, especially a synagogue library and recommended to those who are looking for something different to grace their Shabbat table.


State of the Heart – new review

March 11, 2020

Dov Peretz Elkins ● Jewish Media Review

In State of the Heart, David Kramer takes us on a journey of Israel’s humanitarian efforts that began more than 70 years ago and continues unabated throughout the world today.

In this extraordinary and inspiring collection of over 50 stories, personal interviews, and photographs, David describes the benevolence and altruism that characterizes the nation of Israel. He engages the reader with narratives that identify and provide a glimpse into the compassionate soul of the Israeli people. 

Featured in these accounts are descriptions of life-saving technology and innovation, helping the disabled and teens at risk, managing food collection and distribution programs for the disadvantaged, immigrant absorption and elder care, infertility programs, women’s empowerment and human rights, rescuing victims in the aftermath of natural disasters worldwide, developing and providing life-saving solutions to those in developing nations, cleaning up and protecting the environment, and so much more. 

State of the Heart captures the unique level of concern, care and uncompromising sense of mission, undertaken by Israelis, within Israel and around the globe.

David Kramer is an educator, author and social entrepreneur. He has spent the past ten years helping Israeli and global non-profit organizations tell their story through a social start-up he founded in Israel. David spends much of his time meeting with tour groups in Israel, connecting them to the reality of life in Israel. He served in the Israeli army and lives in Jerusalem with his wife Tova and their five children. 


Was Yosef on the Spectrum – new review

March 10, 2020

Professor Ian Hale, PhD, FCIS ● Author of Asperger’s, Autism & You and The Insider’s Guide to Autism and Asperger’s

Samuel Levine is a prominent New York Law Professor and foremost Judaic scholar. He has written a unique and important book. It conjoins both factual Biblical history with modern neuroscience and psychology to tell us part of the yet unacknowledged story of the history of Autism. This book is special, it must be read.

Titled Was Yosef on the Spectrum?, published by Urim Publications, he combines his extensive knowledge of Rabbinical commentary up to the present day; with the Torah, the Talmud, and Autism producing a unique insight linking our past with the future. The Yosef referred to is the one from the book of Genesis.

Yosef was youngest son of Jacob, also known as Israel. He is best known as the wearer of The Coat of Many Colours, given to him by his father as a mark of his special status of wisdom from his youngest years and as the interpreter of dreams, much to the envy of his older brothers who plotted against him and sold him into slavery. After enduring many hardships Yosef rose to find favor with Pharaoh to become his chief adviser and wisest counselor. He was the visionary who saw the significance of his dream of seven lean cows consuming seven fat ones. He told Pharaoh it prophesized seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine throughout the lands of Egypt. Taking his advice, Pharaoh was careful to store the seven years of good harvests which saved his Kingdom from the famine Yosef had foretold.

During his life Yosef showed many of the now-recognized characteristics of an Autistic person. His determination, his special ability to identify and focus on important things, while being poor at the mundane and social aspects of life, which caused him many problems-but he never gave up, eschewing love of power, thinking always of the common good above himself. His strong sense of compassion (he forgave his brothers and made sure his family was looked after), his love of nature and care for people and animals, his fearlessness, his strong sense of justice and total unfailing loyalty to friends, even in adversity, and perhaps most tellingly, his “different brain” which allowed him to see what others couldn’t. It is precisely those characteristics which, today are so sought after by major corporations like Microsoft, IBM and SAP. Autistic people are special with their special, “mystic” skills and non-standard hyper-connection to creation and intelligences.

In recognizing this, we all owe a special debt to Prof Levine. This not just an account of the past, but a proven understanding of the present and a prophesy of Prof Levine himself to us all-here and now of a potentially glorious future. It is also a warning against ignoring what God has given to us with his gift of Autism to those He has chosen.

It is with real joy that I recommend this book without reservation to every reader who seeks true knowledge on all of the many subjects covered. It is a story of triumph against seemingly impossible odds (something all too many Autistic people and their families face today) and a message of hope. Truly one of the most outstanding reads of this, new century. It deserves seven stars.


Was Yosef on the Spectrum

January 27, 2020

Steven M. Eidelman

“Professor Samuel Levine’s book, Was Yosef on the Spectrum?, is fascinating and compelling.  For readers not knowledgeable about people with disabilities, Levine perfectly summarizes the work we do,  explaining that “[i]t is not uncommon for individuals with disabilities, once they receive the appropriate services, structure, and supports, to be able to exercise the talents they posses and achieve the goals that would otherwise continue to elude them.”  In addition, through his close study of Joseph, Levine shows how characteristics of individuals with autism can often be both limiting and sources of strengths.  In short, Levine’s thesis is quite credible, and I recommend his book.”

Steven M. Eidelman is the H. Rodney Sharp Professor of Human Services Policy and Leadership; and Faculty Director of The National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities


COULD JOSEPH BE ON THE AUTISM SPECTRUM? – new review of Was Yosef on the Spectrum?

January 6, 2020

Different Brains

THE STORY OF JOSEPH

The story of Joseph (the title of my book uses the Hebrew “Yosef”) presents a fascinating and memorable narrative, which has been both the focus of careful study for countless generations of readers and scholars of the Bible, as well as the subject of a wide range of art and literature, from the visual arts to novels to Broadway.  Much of this interest, among both religious adherents and broader culture, likely stems in large part from the challenging questions that arise in the course of the story.

Joseph’s behaviors, interpersonal relationships, personal journey, and development are often difficult to understand. At times, they even seem to defy explanation as he faces concomitant and interconnected challenges, opportunities, and experiences, often at once, both surprising success and unexpected failure. Over the years, I have read the biblical story of Joseph numerous times, and I have studied the text through the prism of the works of classical Jewish commentators, spanning thousands of years and geographical locations across the world.

COULD JOSEPH BE ON THE AUTISM SPECTRUM?

Read the rest of this entry »

The Autism Question and Beyond: Rereading the Joseph Saga

January 5, 2020

Yitzchak Blau ● Lehrhaus

Most readers of Samuel J. Levine’s Was Yosef on the Spectrum? Understanding Joseph Through Torah, Midrash, and Classical Jewish Sources will likely focus their energies on the question in the book’s title. Is it appropriate to attribute autism to one of our biblical heroes? Are the author’s arguments for such a thesis persuasive? Yet it would be a shame if that issue exhausted discussion about a volume which deals with many significant interpretative questions regarding the Joseph narrative. Levine, a professor of Law and Director of the Jewish Law Institute at the Touro Law Center, has done an impressive amount of research, combing the traditional commentaries and midrashim for relevant material, and reading the verses quite carefully. Following up on his footnotes provides ample reward, particularly since Levine addresses the later chapters in Genesis which many Humash students do not get to. After evaluating the central thesis, this review will then explore some important ideas in Levine’s work.

To read the entire review, click here.