Building a Better Judaism

Taiku! Israeli Masorti Movement Opens Door to Gay Rabbis

Taiku! This is the word the Talmud uses when a debate simply can’t be resolved. Rather than pick one solution the Talmud cries Taiku! Tie! Let it stand! and the parties go onto other issues. We like to think that there is one right way and if people work hard enough they will find it. In reality there were many many times when the Talmud could find no way to resolve a dispute. Forcing a solution only divides a community. Calling “Taiku!” allows the community to stay together even without exact agreement on every issue.

Two Contradictory Opinions

The Conservative movement’s handling of gay unions and ordinations is a modern day example of “Taiku!”. In 2006 the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) took up the issue of the status of homosexuality within Conservative Jewish Halachah. Given the strong feelings on all sides, there was no way to come to a single answer, so the committee accepted two contradictory rulings.

The first of these opinions ( EH 24.2006a ) , by Joel Roth, argued against gay unions and ordinations. Roth was concerned that wholesale rejection of rabbinic bans against homosexual relatinships would put the Conservative movement too far outside the bounds of the halachic community which includes orthodox Jews and not just conservative Jews. Continue reading

Categories: Building a Better Judaism, Building a Just Israel | Tags: , , , | 8 Comments

A Step Backwards: Kol BaRama allowed to limit women to 4 hr/wk

This morning HaAretz reported that the Sephardi Haredi radio station Kol BaRama will be broadcassting women’s voices for only four hours a week with the blessing of the the Second Authority for Television and Radio. The Second Authority is responsible for issuing radio station franchises and ensuring that radio station practices conform to Israeli law.

Orignally the Israeli Broadcasting Association was demanding that they have at least one hour a day of women’s programming (6 hr/wk). Civil rights groups believed that even this amount was too little and filed a suit in the Israeli Supreme Court alleging that the government was not doing enough to fight discrimination against women at Kol baRama.

Israeli law does not allow discrimination except in certain religious situations. However, last May former Sephardi Chief Rabbi and Shas spritual leader Ovadia Yosef ruled that there were no problems with listen to women’s speaking voices on the radio.

Kol baRama’s ownership has close ties with several coalition MKs. In Israel there is a very thin line between the legislative and executive branches of government. Members of the Knesset, the legislative branch, also run the ministries that form the executive branch. They therefore control the ability of the government to execute its laws. This often means that a law that is passed in the Knesset can be effectively nullified as a political favor by the MKs that run specific ministries.

Kol baRama insists that increasing the number of hours of women’s broadcasting would lead to an economic loss. The Second Authority run its own independent study and found that 20% of listeners would stop listening if there were more hours of women’s programming. Kol BaRama claims the potential loss is closer to 1/3 of their listeners.

If this statistic is indeed representative of the Sephardi Haredi population as a whole, it suggests that there is deep rooted prejudice in that community. Given Ovadia Yosef’s ruling one can’t simply claim that the exclusion of women is due to religiously mandated separate roles or some sort of special holiness that sets women apart.

However, it is quite possible that this statistic is not representative. It only reports on current listeners. Given an on-going policy of excluding women, it may be that Kol BaRama is creating a self-confirming illusion. By making women all but invisible it alienates people who want to hear women’s voices. The current listeners are those who already don’t mind exclusion rather than the general public. In that case all the statistic tells us is that 20% of people who don’t care about women’s voices actually dislike them enough to stop listening.

The Israeli Broadcasting Authority defends its decision saying that the differences are not that great and no one should be making a big deal of going down from six to four hours.

Kol BaRama broadcasts 24/6. Four hours a week of women’s voices represents 3% of airtime.

Previous articles on Jacob’s Bones:

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Celebrating Purim With a Vengeance

Its often said that Purim is the Jewish Halloween, but some Jews in Borough Park, Brooklyn in New York City must have taken that a little too seriously.

When most people think of Purim, they think about funny parties, weird costumes, drinking a lot, and giving gifts to each others. The Jews who put up these Purim decorations decided that wasn’t enough. They decided the Purim symbol they wanted people to remember was t the hanging death of Haman and his sons. The recreated the scene by stringing up a line of eleven manequins on a wire stretched across the street.

There is a medieval tradition of parading with a hanging figure of Haman and then burning the figure up in effigy. Symbolicly burning is a way of wiping something out. Psychologically burning is a form of purification. One might imagine that burning Haman in effigy is a symbolic way of purifying ourselves from the effects of evil, i.e. symbolically ridding ourselves of self-defeating anger, learned fear, anxiety responses and all the other ways suffering and trauma can bend the human soul out of shape. But hanging 11 fake corpses in a row to stare at all day is nothing more than gloating.

Jews aren’t supposed to rejoice in death. The Talmud says that a generation that puts one man to death is a blood thirsty generation. We talk about the effect of death,. For example, wiping out the name of someone and their descendents is a way of saying that they have been completely vanquished and can never cause trouble anymore. However, we don’t rejoice in death itself, nor in the suffering that leads up to it.

Jews believe in respecting dead bodies. According to Jewish tradition even the hung body of a criminal should be taken down before nightfall. Even if the human being who inhabits the body is evil, the human form is in the image of God. To leave it hanging disrespects not just human dignity, but also God.

Jewish tradition teaches that even our enemies deserve a degree of empathy and respect. Each Pesach we dip our finger in our glass of wine and remove ten drops. According to one well known explanation, we diminish our own joy at liberation because our freedom came at a price paid by others.

Judaism believes that the ability to stand up for oneself and the ability to have compassion for one’s enemy are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the opposite is true. The failure to have compassion destroys the ability to protect oneself. Pharoah was a strong leader, yet he is described as having a hardened heart. Each plague in one way or another was meant to provoke empathy and compassion. For many, shared suffering can soften even the hardest of hearts, but this was not the case for Pharoah. He couldn’t even muster compassion for his own people, let alone the Hebrews in his care. Plague after plague Pharoah refused to let the Jews go, even though his own people suffered the price of his stubbornness. Even when he lost his own son he could not feel empathy and compassion for all the Jewish children he had killed during the years he forbid the Jews to reproduce. He could not acknowlege their suffering. Eventually his hard heart killed him. He drowned in the Red Sea pursuing the people he had no compassion for.

Haman too lacked empathy. He was consumed with his need for power and respect. When Haman refused to bow down to him, he began persecuting Mordachai and everything associated with him, including the entire Jewish people. Had he been capable of empathy he would have understood that Mordachai’s refusal to bow was an expression of integrity and not a threat to Haman’s power. Had he been capable of empathy he would have accepted the kings need to honor Mordachai as the person who saved his life. Instead of empathy for the king’s need, Mordachai entertained still more hatred and resentment against Mordachai. Eventually, his self-absorption and lack of empathy sealed his doom: seeking to save his own life he threw himself at Esther with the intent of begging her for his life. He gave little thought to how this might look to the king. Whn the king came in from the garden, he saw Haman attacking Esther. This was the final straw and the king ordered Haman’s death.

Even the Jewish notion of God affirms the compatibility of empathy and honor. God in Judaism is portrayed as a strong warrior, but also as One filled with compassion.

We lower ourselves to the level of Haman if we think that celebrating salvation requires gloating over the death and suffering of others, even long dead fictional others. There’s a reason mischloch manot, tzedakah, and a meal are the Purim mitzvot: they are about sustaining life.

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70 Year Old Ultra-Orthodox Woman Latest Victim of Haredi Vigilantes

We must not stand idly by

Two nights ago, the “modesty potrol” of Mea Shearim beat up a 70 year old ultra-orthodox woman who teaches women studying for conversion. They broke her right hand, crushed her left leg, and injured her face.

Many have observed that the victims of these so-called patrols are usually other Haredim. The violence in Beit Shemesh was a spillover of a bullying problem internal to the haredi community. The reasons why this problem persists are complicated.

Just as rabbis refused to give public condemnations against the violence in Beit Shemesh, so too when the violence is targeted within their own community. The reasons for the silence are the same ones that were given in December when the non-Haredi public called for condemnation of bullying on buses, streets, and school protests.

Some rabbis have the feeling that the violent behavior is nonsense. Talking about it will only give them their moment of fame. It will in fact egg them on. Others may feel that the ends justify the means. When attacking or arrested by police, they claim to be acting in defense of modesty and protecting the Haredi community from destruction. Even if they don’t fully approve of the tactics, they don’t really want to stop the phenomenon. Others keep silent out of fear, lest they be judged as lax about modesty and external threats to the Haredi way of life.

Vigilante behavior is not limited to Israeli Haredim. There are on-going problems with self-appointed vigilantes in Haredi communities in the USA as well.  Continue reading

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Modesty American Style with Love from Russia

The American Haredi videolog website,, wanted to post a Discover commercial making fun of the long waits of its competitors. Discover had two versions of the commerical: the original and one showing a Russian fiddler playing the violin as call-wait music while his colleague went out to lunch.

Ah, but what to do? The original Discover commercial showed… knees and calves. Naked calves! No problem. Just bring out the handy dandy video editor, and voila….

It would be  easy enough to ridicule such a video, but there is much more to learn by taking a step back and examining why such a video is so strange to non-Haredi eyes.

As we have seen from the debates about men walking out from military ceremonies where women are singing, Haredim are sometimes prone to insisting that Halachah is absolutely black and white. There is no possible alternate interpretation that is “Jewish”. In reality the rules about what parts of the body should be covered and when, are riddled with arguments and disagreements. When it comes to arms and legs there are two major divergent schools of thought:

  • modesty and nakedness is a matter of social convention. Given the range of dress options, one should avoid the risqué ones. Thus if normal fashion says g-strings are risqué even at the beach, but full bikini bottoms are modest, the one could wear bikini bottoms without worry. Put another way: within a given culture, dress appropriatesly for children’s eyes.
  • independent of culture, certain parts of the body are inherently immodest. The Torah and Talmud define what those parts of the body are. Jews have only to obey. There are differences of opinion about what exactly counts as immodest body parts. For example, some argue that the knee and everything above it must be covered. Others insist that the ankle and even the foot itself is immodest and must be covered at all times with either skirts or stockings or both.

Historically, the Jewish community has preferred the social definition of modesty. Even the haredim’s icons followed this definition in the first half of the 20th century. We have pictures of Ovadia Yosef and his wife dressed in every day clothes in the late 1940’s. His wife is without a wig and even shows cleavage. Even Menachem Schneerson went bare headed from time to time in the twenties and thirties.

In the last 50 years of so, the haredim have moved to a more and more objectivist standard of modesty. By contrast, Liberal Judaisms (and here I include even Modern Orthodoxy), have held onto the culturally driven standards, at least in part. Rather than be afraid of halacha based on cultural awareness, they have embraced it. This creates an immense intellectual and cultural divide between the haredim and the rest of Jews. Continue reading

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Mechitzas on El Al’s Flight To Belgium

It looks like in flight mechitzas may not be a joke after all. Last Monday( February 20), the Israeli television station channel 2 and Israeli business newspaper Globes reported that Haredim set up “dividers” on a recent El Al flight to Belgium. Passengers reported that the dividers extended the length of the plane, to block movies, and by some accounts, to also block the view of emergency exits.

El Al issued a statement saying “This is an unusual event, and is not in accordance with company flight service procedure. We would like to emphasize that flight safety was not compromised. The incident will be reviewed by El Al.” However, passengers reported that flight attendants said this happens from time to time. They deal with the situation by moving passengers annoyed by it.

The exact nature of the dividers wasn’t specified. Was this a single partition that extended the length of the cabin or some sort of personal mechitzah used by several passengers? In 2010 the Jerusalem Post reported that Haredim were being advised to carry portable folding white mechitzas on plane rides.

Spoof advertizement

At the time many thought that the idea was so bizarre that it must be some sort of pre-Purim joke. Since Jerusalem Post did not release a picture of the mechitza, one blog, the Muquata, provided a spoofed photo. In contrast to the actual mechitza (pictured left), the spoof photograph showed a green wrap around mechitza with El Al branding.

An actual in-flight mechitza (bluish divider) - note that it rises several inches above the seat back, potentially blocking the view of passengers behind the user.

The actual mechitzas attached to the seat back before each passanger where the tray folds down. They provided blinders that blocked the view of large in-flight movie screens and also of passengers on either side of the traveller. They were white in color, not green. El Al denied any knowledge of the device.

It sometimes takes time for Haredi news to make it to the mainstream press. The folding mechitzah had been in the works well before the 2010 Jerusalem Post article. In 2008 Yated, a Haredi newspaper reported that a delegation from the Rabbinical Committee for Transportation Matters who met with HaRav Chaim Kanievsky to get approval for their personal mechitza proposal and a blessing for their efforts in finding solutions to modesty issues. They showed him a prototype of the mechitza which can be folded up to 10inches. The organization responsible for the mechitzas, the Rabbinical Committee for Transportation Matters, is also involved in promoting segregated bus lines.

At the time, Kanievsky showed little understanding of the potential impact of the dividers on other travellers: Continue reading

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The Problem With Body Part Centric Modesty

This January, Marc Angel from the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals posted his own attempt to reclaim the Jewish notion of modesty from the extremists. Sadly the entire essay, although clearly well meaning, is fatally flawed.

His first argument appeals to the issue of women being sometimes treated as sex objects. He writes:

Non-tseniut behavior signals a person’s desire to be seen as an object of sexual attraction. … Why would people willingly dress or act in a manner as to make themselves into objects?

Perhaps because they aren’t making themselves into objects? Continue reading

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Modesty, Dignity and Dreams

In a recent editorial in the Sisterhood, “Why I Cover Up”, Gavriella Lerner explained that modesty to her is an expression of dignity. The extremist view that has women covering up for the sake of men could care less about dignity and therefore it is wrong. In fact it lowers dignity by painting men as creatures that can’t control themseles and women as nothing more than sex objects in the eyes of these uncontrollable men.

The entire argument assumes that dignity is somehow distinct from sexual attraction. But if so, how is it distinct? Earlier in the essay she admits that the same acts that she calls expressions of dignity also serve as breaks on desire. For this reason she won’t wear a bikini.

She never does define dignity. The cloest she gets is this sentence: “Judaism prescribes the dignity with which we are to comport ourselves.”. That’s not a definition, but rather a hand off. Judaism is a vast sea with many philosophies and view points. Where in that sea is the definition of dignity that Judaism prescribes? Is it really reducible to clothes?

Secondly, is being a sex object  undignified? If not, then why even worry about a bikini? Wouldn’t it be as insulting to dignity as the segregated buses and separate sides of the street?

If being a sex object is undignified, then isn’t ANY rationale based on male sexual desire also an argument for dignity? Wouldn’t that mean that dignity in large part is really one and the same as one’s sense of what avoids turning on the opposite sex? Should one gender define dignity for the other?

Personally, I think dignity has nothing to do with clothes. Continue reading

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Modesty and Moral Intuition

by Andrew Shapiro Katz

Recently Rabbi Joshua Gutoff wrote a blog response to the article and blog post by Rabbi Dov Linzer about tznuit and the male gaze. Gutoff writes:

Finally: at best it tells people who are committed to Talmudic culture, “Don’t worry, the Talmud is not as bad as those guys make it seem.” But at the end of the day, he doesn’t tell us anything about ethics we didn’t already know, and neither (in his reading) does the Talmud. But if he hadn’t found the texts he had, or if he hadn’t read them in the way he did, would it then be ok to blame male desire on women, to lock them up or cover them in veils? Of course not. But if the best we can get from the Talmud is a confirmation of the values we already have, why bother?

Reading this paragraph got me thinking about what bothers me most in all of the back and forth about tzniut, “hadrat nashim” and the role of women within Judaism. From my perspective, the BEST of Orthodox Judaism on gender issues lags well behind the BEST of contemporary western culture. And I think there are many Orthodox Jews who in their heart of hearts feel the same way. But admitting this gets one’s “Orthodoxy credentials” challenged. And the sociology of halachically observant communities is so fragile that members who feel this way compromise what their moral intuition tells them is right and accept (and impose) indignities they would find completely unacceptable in general society. And all the time waiting for “creative and courageous” rabbis to find a way to square the tradition – at least on this particular issue – with the more ethical world around it without it leading to some major outcry or schism.

Is this some kind of modern Akeidat Yitzhak, that we are somehow being asked to demonstrate our faithfulness to halacha by acceding to its unethical demands?

Andrew Shapiro Katz is a Jewish educator, now living in Beersheva, Israel

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Watch Those Taps on Shabbat!

The latest in extremist Halachic innovations: turning on the tap in high rise buildings violates Shabbat. Many high rise buildings use an electricity driven pump to bring water up from ground level to the upstairs apartments. Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Leib Landa from Bnei Brack decided that the electric pumps posed a problem because their motor does not run continuously on Shabbat. His solution: force the pump to run continuously.

This isn’t the first time someone has tried to prohibit something out of concern for a motor being turned on.   Some people have claimed that refrigerator doors shouldn’t be opened because it might cause the refrigerator compressor to turn on.  One rabbi last year declared Shabbat elevators in violation of Shabbat because the extra weight would make the engine work harder.  There are even people who put all the water they want to use for Shabbat in jugs for fear that drawing tap water will make municipal water pumps work harder.

It would be easy to ridicule these chumrot as yet one more example of extremism, but we learn much more as Jews by looking at why they seem crazy.    As Jews it isn’t enough to simply feel something is wrong.  We need to name why so we can understand our deepest convictions and use them to build a better Judaism.  Close examination of the arguments for and against such prohibitions teach us a lot about the core values at the heart of Judaism.

Obviously there were no electric motors in the time of Moses nor in the period of the Mishnah and Talmud.  So where do these prohibitions come from?  Why is there any ban on electricity at all? Is this a better Judaism or a Judaism that focuses on a few halachic principals and ignores other equally important principles? Continue reading

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