Review of On the Relationship of Mitzvot Between Man and His Neighbor and Man and His Maker

November 21, 2014

BSperberOnTheRelationshipweb1y David Tesler

Rabbi Daniel Sperber has written a short but lovely book about the relationship between the commandments that are directed between ‘Man and his Neighbors’ (meaning commandments that connect one person to another) and between ‘Man and his Maker’ or ritual commandments. This is a familiar dichotomy within Jewish Law and Rabbi Sperber argues that when there is a tension between the two and it becomes impossible to follow both commandments, there is a requirement to favor and prioritize the interpersonal commandment.

In the first part of the book, Sperber offers 21 examples of this prioritization. The second part relates famous stories of great Rabbis who integrated this concept into their lives. In one moving example, the author tells us about Rabbi Salanter (1810-1883) who ritually washed his hands with what his contemporaries thought to be too little water. When asked why he wasn’t using the proper amount of water, Salanter said that he saw how difficult it was for the maid who was tasked with drawing the water from afar and carrying the heavy load to the house. Rabbi Salanter felt that it was “forbidden for a person to be overly religious at the expense of others.” A similar story is told of a Rabbi who would cut short his long prayers when there were working men present waiting for him to finish so as to avoid negatively impacting their earning potential.

This review originally appears in the AJL Newsletter

A Review of Women and Men In Communal Prayer: Halakhic Perspectives

March 10, 2013

womenandmenincommunalby Rabbi Louis Rieser

Change in the Orthodox world is accompanied by legal (halakhic) debates measuring the boundaries of permissible behavior. Women and Men in Communal Prayer presents one such debate, calling women to recite blessings over the Torah reading during a public service.

Orthodox prayer services separate men and women, and the public roles open to women are restricted. In recent years these boundaries have been tested and changes are taking place. The outside world sees only the results; this volume opens a window on the process.

The book includes an informative introduction, two major position papers on the question of women being called to the Torah, and two pointed rebuttals. The papers are detailed, laying out the issues, tracing the debates, and exploring the implications of their own positions. They touch on a range of related issues as they consider such basic halakhic categories as the honor due to the congregation and the honor due to an individual.

For the Orthodox reader, this book is a gem. For the rest of us it is an opportunity to understand a world that is otherwise closed to us. While the debate is particular to the Orthodox world, the ethical issues hold broader interest.

This review first appeared in Congregational Libraries Today

Review of Daniel Sperber’s On Changes in Jewish Liturgy

March 12, 2012

by Dan Rabinowitz and Eliezer Brodt

Daniel Sperber, On Changes in Jewish Liturgy, Options & Limitations, Urim Publications, Israel: 2010

The ever prolific Professor Daniel Sperber’s most recent book focuses on Tefillah. This book, as some of his others, has drawn some sharp criticism, most notably from Professor Aryeh Frimer in Hakirah (available here). To be sure, this post does not attempt to defend Professor Sperber or the feminist movement with regard to these issues, but, in the course of our review we hope to offer some relevant comments that will further this important discussion. Our main interest remains the substance of the book on this important topic – changes to the Jewish liturgy.

This book grew out of a lecture given at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. Professor Sperber then decided to revisit the broader issue of the parameters of acceptable changes to the liturgy.

The prayerbook has become – and this is not a new trend – a battleground. In 19th century, the battle lines were drawn between Reform and Orthodox movements. Of course, earlier heterodox movements had also created their own prayerbooks, such as the Karaites, but in those instance, the prayerbook was more a reflection and outgrowth of the movement and was not, in and of itself, one of the wedge issues. In the modern period, however, the advent of the Reform movement argued for a variety of changes to the prayerbook to account and adjust for modernity. In this instance, it was both the substance of the prayers as well as their execution (Hebrew or not) that was at issue See generally, Jacob J. Petuchowski, Prayerbook Reform in Europe, New York, 1968.

Earlier examples of prayerbook controversy touched upon other theological debates; for example, some questioned the inclusion of Machnesi Rachamim as it can be read as a request for assistance from angels and not God (see here). Others questioned the inclusion of piyutim generally. Ibn Ezra’s critical comments regarding this topic are well-known. Sometimes prayer itself was employed for polemical purposes. Naftali Weider discusses a version of the blessing over the Friday night candles that incorporated a polemic against Karaism (see N. Weider, Hisgavshos Nusach HaTefillah B’Mizrach U’BeMaariv, Jerusalem, 1998, 329). And, of course, one must mention the oft-discussed blessing against heretics [in some versions] in the Shemoneh Esrei (see, most recently, Ruth Langer, Cursing the Christians?: A History of the Birkat HaMinim, Oxford Univ. Press: 2011).

Thus, it is scarcely surprising that discussing changes to the prayerbook might arouse controversy. That said, we must note – and this is the essential point of this book – the texts of the Read the rest of this entry »