Thursday, March 18, 2010

Eishes Chayil, Mi Yimtza?

It is often noted that traditional Jewish society is patriarchal, as the public aspects of the religion seem to be dominated by men. While it is true that public aspects of Judaism often include only men, and men themselves are required to participate in more religious acts than women, these rites and practices do not form the center of Jewish values and life. In Jewish belief, the purpose of a mitzvah (commandment) is to bring the person doing the act to a closer connection with G-d as a result of the Divine act. From a Jewish perspective, men are in more need of this connection and inspiration than women as men are innately on a lower spiritual level. As shown in Bereishis (Genesis), men were simply formed, while women were “built” (“v’yiven l’isha”). Chazal (ancient Jewish sages) note the connection between the word “build” (“banah”) and the word “binah”, which generally means “intuition” or “deep knowledge”, taking from this the notion that women have an innate knowledge of the world that men can only access through much trial and struggle. Because of their increased binah, women also have a closer natural connection to the shechinah, or the dwelling presence of G-d in the physical world, which itself represents the feminine qualities and values of G-d.

Though it may appear otherwise to many, women actually have a central place in Judaism and in the Jewish home environment. A women is meant to be the akeres habayis (foundation of the home), and while her role may not often be shown to the public, it is much more important than the role of men in our society. This is because the woman is responsible for the education of the children, who represent the next generation of the Jewish community. Without women, then, Judaism itself would fail to continue, and the community would find itself utterly lost. Because the redemption and completion of the world will come through the intense concentration and contemplation of religious life, which are taught primarily by the mothers in Jewish society, it is said that redemption itself will come because of the Jewish woman.

The differences between the outside world and the world of Orthodox Judaism often create many of the misunderstandings that lead to notions of Jewish religious sexism. Because the majority religion in America, and much of the western world, is one that does not include a complete lifestyle driven at every second by detailed religious laws, the services that take place during the week are perceived to be central to the religion. The same, then, is transferred to Judaism, with people expecting the daily services, culminating with the services on Shabbos (the Sabbath), to be the culmination of Jewish religious life and practice. In truth, though, the services were created as a way to induce communal activity and unity for the men, who are in much more of a spiritual struggle. The prayers themselves were created with a careful selection of verses from the Torah, in addition to other prayers written thousands of years ago by sages to force men to shift their concentration from the physical distractions to the spiritual realities of the world. Jewish prayer, then, is a sort of medicine for the male neshama (soul), and communal prayer serves as a sort of required group therapy. When seen from this light, women not often participating in public aspects of Judaism is a sign not of suppression, but of their spiritual elevation.

With this idea of public religious practice in mind, it is understandable why men serve as the spiritual leaders in Judaism. Those men who serve as rabbonim (rabbis) are meant to be men who have attained a piece of spirituality through long learning and struggle, and they then work to help other men achieve the same. If a women were to serve in this role, she would not have the same ability to help men elevate themselves, as she began her life at a higher spiritual level than many men will ever reach, and cannot begin to understand the complexities of the struggles than men face while attempting to overcome their spiritual shortcomings. For a woman to serve as the spiritual leader of a group, then, would mean one of two things: either the men of the community are not at all important (as we are only as strong as our weakest members) or this particular women is herself innately low and has had to struggle to meet her current (somewhat basic) spiritual level.

It is strange, then, that a “rabbi” who reports himself to be Orthodox has given a sort of rabbinic title to a women in his community, who also reports herself to be Orthodox. For the past several weeks, great debate has been going on in the more modern segments of the Orthodox community as to the religious basis and appropriateness of a women serving as a rabbi in the traditional Jewish world. The head rabbi of the religious school and synagogue that have been involved in the controversy is no stranger to Orthodox debate, as many of his previous opinions, comments, and writings have shown him to be on the extreme borders of what constitutes an Orthodox Jew. His latest personal “triumph” is simply the most recent in his long line of acts that call into question what it means to be an Orthodox Jew.

To be sure, women have played important roles as leaders in the Jewish community, specifically with regard to instruction (which has already been noted as the most important aspect of women in the Jewish community). However, in this case, something else must be at work. If she was simply continuing in the long line of Jewish educators that form the next generation of the Jewish community, I wouldn’t expect there to be such pomp and show associated with her addition to the staff at her particular congregation. The recent label of “rabbah” (supposedly the female version of “rabbi”) given to her by the head rabbi at her congregation seems to show the reality of the situation.

As a person of deeper leanings, I find this issue to have the possibility of saying a great deal about the state of the Jewish community today. If the rabbi in question truly felt that it was necessary to have a woman serve in a rabbinic role, and it was not simply a ploy to push the boundaries of Orthodoxy (which seems to have been the purpose of his previous controversial acts), this means that he feels that women (presumably particularly Modern Orthodox women), by virtue of their connection with modern society and the outside world, have come to think of themselves as on par with men in their low state of spirituality. If this is actually the case, and the women in these communities have been spiritually impacted by their closeness and intense involvement in modern society, the solution to the problem is hardly a legitimization of this fact by asserting the need for women in rabbinic roles, but in a reevaluation of just what side Modern Orthodoxy is on: the side of Judaism or the side of the rest of the world.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

From Many, One

In the Torah reading for this week, we move from sefer Shemos (Exodus) to Vayikra (Leviticus). In this week's parsha, Vayikra, the Torah discusses the various korbonos (offerings/sacrifices) that individuals are instructed to bring. The parsha begins with G-d telling Moshe (Moses) to speak to the People of Israel, telling them, "Adam ki yakriv mikem korban" ("When a person from among you brings a sacrifice"). Chazal, the early sages of Judaism, teach us that the central purpose of offering a sacrifice is to nullify our personal desires to the Divine will. The focus of the system of sacrifices is not the blood spilled upon killing the animal, as indeed not all sacrifices were animals, but the focus and contrition of the person who brought the offering. The root of the word for sacrifice (korban) actually means "close" or "near", as the entire process was meant to draw an individual closer to G-d, closer to the community, and closer to their true essence through the symbolic giving of their own "animal self".

An interesting feature of the words spoken from Moshe to Klal Yisroel regarding sacrifices is the seemingly extra word "mikem" or "from you". Had this word not been included, the words themselves would still make perfect sense and also seem to have the same meaning ("When a person brings a sacrifice"). Because we know that not even a single letter in the entire Torah is unnecessary, we have to wonder why this word appears in the text, and what it comes to teach us.

The Chiddushei HaRim, the first Gerer rebbe, says that the answer to this question comes from the famous adage, "If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I?" It is commonly known that each person comes into this world with a specific task that is meant for that person alone, with a special piece of the universe to rectify that only they can impact. When a person works toward their task and eventually achieves this task, the ramifications are found within the entire community, and the whole of redemption is only achieved in the unity of countless individuals' tasks.

With this in mind, the Sfas Emes, the grandson of the Chiddushei HaRim, explains the need for the word "mikem" in the verse. The korbonos we bring are effective only because we bring them as a small part of a greater community. Not only does this apply to the actual physical offering brought, but also to the deeper meaning of the offering: self-sacrifice. Whenever we realize that we are part of a larger story, and our actions impact all of those around us, we come closer to understanding the great importance of replacing our desires and will with the will and desire of G-d.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Hinei Ma Tov U'ma Naim

In Megillas Esther, Haman (the villain of the story) describes the Jewish people as being "mefuzar um'forad," (scattered and dispersed). The second Aleksander rebbe, the Yismach Yisroel, explained that these words explain why the Jewish people reached such a low state that Haman was able to have success in his attempts to bring about their destruction. The Yismach Yisroel explains that the only reason why the enemies of the Jewish people are able to hurt them is due to the separation and baseless disagreement between Jews. Because we are meant to be a people that rises above physical distrctions to have a complete revelation of the spiritual unity between all things, our most important communal value is achdus (unity). When we fail at this, we fail at the basis of our very existence.

This Purim, I spent most of the day with the Aleksander rebbe, Harav Yosef Yitzchok Meir Singer. I arrived at his house for lunch at 12:30, and stayed until 4:00, and then went to his gathering at his synagogue from 10:00 until 12:30. During the time at his house, as I sat with him and a few other Chasidim from Israel eating the meal, I watched countless people stream into the dinning room. Each person came not only to receive monetary donations, as this is the more than common on Purim, but to ask for the rebbe's advice on spiritual matters. As Aleksander is a Chasidus in the tradition of Peshis'cha and Kotzk, there is no notion of the rebbe being innately holy, soaring in spiritual levels that are not reachable by the common person. Instead, he is seen simply as a person who, through his own self-discipline and work, reached a place that is accessible by anyone who dedicates themselves to self-transformation. Because of this, the rebbe makes himself very available to Chasidim and non-Chasidim alike, taking advantage of every opportunity to help others with their needs. The throngs of people who visited the rebbe were from all walks of life, reaching from Chasidish to those having no apparent religious affiliation at all. The rebbe even took time to meet with a woman who came for a donation to her particular charity.

Whenever the flow of people dropped a bit, the rebbe would take the time to speak with those of us sitting at his table, telling stories, singing songs, drinking wine, and dancing to the holiday music being pumped through speakers in the house. The rebbe also took time to visit with his younger children and grandchildren who were running through the house. No matter who the rebbe spoke to, and no matter what issue was being discussed, the rebbe seemed to make sure that the person was treated as though they were the only person in the room.

I once heard another story of the Yismach Yisroel regarding Purim. One Purim, while the rebbe sat eating his meal, a Chasid came into his house dressed as a woodcutter. The Chasid asked the Yismach Yisroel the follow question: "I am a woodcutter, and I have been working hard to cut a piece of wood, but I cannot cut it. Why is this? Is it because I am old and can no longer work with strength? Is it because the ax has become dull through years of work? " The rebbe responded to the question in reference to the Jewish people's struggle in the physical world. He said that spiritually, the two problems were the same. As time passes, and as we undergo difficulties in life, our physical strength weakens and our spiritual tools become dull. The rebbe then said that the solution to the problem is found in a verse in Megillas Esther: "Leich k'nois es kol HaYehudim," (Go, collect all the Jews). His response is that achdus, Jewish unity, seeing other Jews in a positive light no matter how negative the circumstances, and always working to help one another reach redemption, is the answer to our problems.