Monday, October 20, 2014

Radical Rabbinics Renewed: Flood Waters Rising

(Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who tried to reconstitute a modern Sanhedrin)

In recent weeks, the rabbinate has again been sullied by the sordid actions of one of our rank. Properly, the RCA repudiated, revoked, and removed said offender, and began to put in place overdue but welcome measures to protect the status of converts, particularly women, placed in a vulnerable position. Sadly, the actions came too late, and it seems they could have done more earlier.  Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, but we've also been down this road before.  Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, the revered sage and Av Beit Din (Chief Justice) for the RCA's affiliated BDA issued an important ruling, kedarko hakodesh (as is his holy way) ruling that all of the converts are Jewish and need not worry about their status.  As a deservedly revered, humble, learned, and pious Rabbi (who started his illustrious career in Providence, RI and makes us all beam with pride), his ruling will likely be respected and accepted across many streams, and most importantly, by the Rabbanut, the Israeli rabbinate.  Still and sadly, the rabbinate is reviewing the conversions, in a move that could cause terror amongst the already vulnerable population, and is almost certainly a collective violation of the biblical injunction of inui hager, oppressing the convert.  Note, I'm not assigning blame, but describing the situation that I'm hearing numbers of real converts describe, and that amounts to a major Jewish law problem that we as Rabbis should and must address.

In the past. the sages from the time of the great assembly to the sages of the mishnah to the medieval authority Rabbeinu Gershom issued legal decrees to protect the vulnerable, the classic origination of tikun haolam, the repair of the world.  These included the institution of the ketubah to protect married women in changed socioeconomic circumstances, the ban on polygamy, the pruzbul to protect the poor, and other bold and brave decrees.  Gittin, divorce documents are destroyed, and courts only keep certificates that a divorce was completed, specifically so that we won't revisit the documents to inquire as to their validity.

In that most traditional of spirits, an in line with Rabbi Schwartz's ruling and the RCA's statement, for the sake of righteous converts (gerei hatzedek) I humbly propose that the Orthodox Rabbinate sign on to a new decree, a bona fide gezeira (decree to protect Torah law) that states as follows:

    אנו החתומים גוזרים שאסור לבדוק אחרי מעשים הרעים לשעבר של דיינים לבתי  דין של גיור כדי לפסול גירות כי אין לדבר סוף ואי אפשר לגרים לחיות בפחד בלי מנוחת נפש.  עושים את הגזירה הזאת מפני תיקון העולם

We the undersigned decree that it is forbidden to inquire into the former immoral actions of conversion court judges in order to invalidate conversions, for there is no end to the matter and it is not proper for converts to live in constant fear with no peace of mind.  We are making this decree to facilitate the betterment of our world.

Several points:

1) Rabbinic Power Generally

Some will point out, rightly, that we have much to fear from unchecked rabbinic power, especially given the current state of affairs.  I don't disagree.  That being said, this is a religious problem, and the rabbis of former generations would have been creative, bold, and solved the problem in just this kind of way.  There are plenty of natural limits on rabbinic power.  For one, the community won't accept a universal decree easily if at all (most would think the idea impossible in the current climate). Secondly, the notion of getting prominent scholars and a wide breadth of Rabbis and legal decisors to agree to new legislation is nearly impossible to fathom in today's divided world.  That's why I'm imploring my rabbinic colleagues defy cynicism and do the impossible.

2)  Halachic Analysis

Rabbi Schwartz's ruling was a current Jewish law ruling.  I haven't heard his reasoning, but am sure he's judged and ruled correctly.  Many others will agree, but it's possible that some, especially in Israel, will not.  I'd like to explore and examine the legal aspects of retroactively invalidating conversions and the status of sinful judges (whose prior sins were exposed after the fact), but even engaging in this analysis is problematic for converts given the immense and dramatic practical implications of the law.  What I'm proposing is, in some sense, unrelated to that type of analysis.

3)  Restoring the glory of Torah

It's been a tough road for organized religion, or organized anything for that matter (see Congress of the United States).  Cynicism is high, popularity is absent, and there's a broad consensus that self-interest, partisan politics, money, and power prevent the right thing from happening always.  Friends, we can actually begin to change that action through bold moves consistent with our mesorah (tradition).  When I was studying in RIETS, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a venerated Rosh Yeshiva and one of the community's brilliant sages and Talmudic scholars would often repeat some version of the following thoughts:

Why is it that the chachamim are allowed to make new decrees?  After all, the Torah is perfect, meaning perfectly balanced between stringency and leniency, as expressed in the mitzvot that we shouldn't add or subtract, and in the Rambam's notion of shevil hazahav, the golden mean, etc.  The sages understood inherently that they were empowered to create fences or obligations to protect the observance of commandments and ideals, positive and negative, that were in the Torah.  They weren't making new rules, but insuring that the Torah was properly followed.

Well, it's the same situation for us today.  The Torah's command to "love the convert" and proscription, "don't oppress the convert," are concomitantly and systematically endangered.  This is precisely the unique kind of situation where Rabbis need to bond together to protect the righteous values and commands of our holy Torah.  A gezeirah is the perfect way to do it, and would help to mend wounds and restore faith in the Torah and religious leadership.  That's the real tikkun to this kind of thing, and I hope people will take my simple but bizarre suggestion seriously.  Frankly, it's the traditional rabbinic answer and long overdue.

I'm also going to ask for allies from across the Orthodox rabbinic spectrum to join together in this fight, and lobby for its acceptance.  It's our responsibility to solve the problem structurally and not rest.  As we said so many times on Sukkot, Please God, save us!  When I first became more observant, my grandfather z''l reminded me that God likes to help those who help themselves first. I'm going to do my best to follow his advice.      

P.S.  If you're willing to sign on, let me know!

Mikveh Madness II

I'd like to share some of the kernel ideas of a sermon I delivered to my Congregation this past Shabbat, Parshat Breishit, when we started the Torah anew and began with Creation:

Years ago, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan z''l wrote a small booklet entitled Waters of Eden outlining the basic laws and some of his philosophical musings on the Mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath.  In that rich pamphlet, he noted some powerful and beautiful ideas about the concept of Mikveh.  

First, he focused on a common Chasidic conception of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, promulgated by the Baal Shem Tov and many others.  Originally (presumably in an ontological and not necessarily temporal sense), humans were purely good, with evil manifest externally.  Enter the slithering snake as sinister symbol.  After consumption of the fruit from the tree, however, good and evil were then (and now) bound together.  More than the metaphor of entangled cords, it seems more proper to analogize by assigning to evil the role of soluble dissolved in a solvent; think sugar in tea.  On Shabbat, to emphasize the point, I mentioned a profound interpretation of the Gaon Rabbi Elijah of Vilna.  A famous verse in Ecclesiastes states, "For there is not a righteous person on Earth who does good and sins not." (Ecclesiastes 7:20).  The common understanding is that no one is perfect; all people sin.  Taking a more literal interpretation, the Gaon explained instead that every good deed is inherently mixed with some element of sin, be it improper motivation, ego, gain, etc.  Anyone who performs a good action will also sin in some sense; it's simply the cost of doing business in our post-Edenic world. 

Central to Rabbi Kaplan's thesis (it made the title!), he focused on the verse, "[a] river went out of Eden to water the Gaden, and from there it separated and became four headwaters." (Genesis 2:10)  The Talmud in Berachot (55a) notes that all of the world's bodies of water are sourced in the original river leaving Eden. Immersion in the Mikveh, and purity in general, is an attempt to return to the well-intentioned world of Eden where human desires are pure and plain.  Halachah requires absolutely immersion in a natural body of water to achieve taharah, purity.  Personally, I understand this to mean a mode of operation where we strongly and innately desire to act righteously and put our best foot forward.  This is something we all feel on occasion, and try to make our common mode.

How sadly ironic that the mikveh itself has now become the model of the blurring between the pure and the profane, and that the natural source of our return to honesty, humility, and trust in humanity's best intentions has transformed into a vestige of that very real and perverse world in which we live.  Is it possible to find purity in our world?     

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Mikveh Madness

In the Lonely Man of Faith, Rav Soloveitchik famously discerned two human archetypes in the varying accounts of Creation presented both in Genesis Chapters 1 and 2 (read yesterday as the weekly Torah reading), and also evident from his personal observations and experiences of modernity. It's not my intention to discuss the Rav's compelling confession in full here, but I would like to make use of his thesis to describe some of the sadness I'm feeling today.

While describing what the Rav termed “Adam I”, he described a social creature whose innate humanity (and therefore reflection of being created in God's image) is manifest by the command to “fill the earth and subdue it.” Man's mastery over science, nature, obsession with technological advance, and constant quest for dignity are to be understood as one of two major operating principles, and an important part of what it means to be a human. I'd like to cite part of the Rav's description of this personality:

     Dignity is a social and behavioral category, expressing not an intrinsic existential quality but a            technique of living, a way of impressing society, the knowhow of commanding respect and                  attention of the other fellow, a capacity to make one's presence felt. In Hebrew, the noun kavod,          dignity, and the noun koved, weight, gravitas, stem from the same root . . . Hence dignity is is              measured not by the inner worth of the in-depth personality, but by the accomplishments of the            surface personality. (Lonely Man of Faith, pg. 24).

I'm not a sociologist, nor am I a psychologist. It would seem to me, though, that, with frequent publicity, “spiritual leaders” repeatedly fail to respect the human dignity of others, and have manifest their personal perverted drives for power by using and and objectifying others. Sometimes, its a lack of respect for property or civil liberties; sometimes, its a lack of respect for honestly held feelings and experiences; often, its a lack of respect for sexual privacy and the infinite human value present in each soul. All of the time, it's the opposite of the values real spiritual leaders ought to be promoting as their raison d'etre. The problem is much more deeply rooted than the surface symptoms and manifestations we so often read about, and is inherent to the money, fame, and power so easily abused in organized religion. “Responsibility” is vital in the Rav's formulation of Adam I's healthy exercise of human power; it's totally absent far too often in today's rabbinate and in religious and other leadership structures generally. And then there's “Adam the Second,” an archetype even more sorely absent, and one that ought to be a balanced part of religious existence.

For “Adam the Second,” his human drive is manifest not in exercising (we hope responsibly) human domination and control, but rather in the experience of the divine inherent in being.

     However, while the cosmos provokes Adam the first to quest for power and control, thus making        him ask the functional “how” question, Adam the second responds to the call of the cosmos by            engaging in a different kind of cognitive gesture. He does not ask a single functional question.            Intead his inquiry is of a metaphysical nature and a threefold one. He wants to know: “Why is it?”      “What is it?” “Who is it?” (Lonely Man of Faith, pg. 20)

The mikveh is the ancient Jewish ritual bath. Composed of natural water, its use represents this important and oft-neglected aspect of existence. For many reasons, our modern society renders it increasingly difficult to face the mystery of our own existence, and existence as a whole, and to confront our human role and responsibility in light of the grandeur, loneliness, and awesome privilege of simply being. Undoubtedly, part of it is our obsession with mastery, technology, fame, and ourselves; in other words, the extreme and growing overemphasis of “Adam the First.” Water is a universal symbol of rebirth, and a Jewish symbol of purity, introspection, and the relationship between an individual and the Master of the Universe. Personally, my experience using the mikveh (aside from the one time I caught Conjunctivitis from a toxic body of water in Jerusalem's old city on the Eve of Yom Kippur) has been fragile and meaningful. Alone in the room with the water, I recall feeling God's presence and resolving more strongly to improve, to change, and to focus. Partly the ritual and partly the religious significances and deep connection so many generations of our ancestors, the mikveh is the ultimate in religious confrontations with God and with one's own self. The horrid abuse of this intimate sanctified space reminds me of the forgotten holiness in our world, and leaves me shaken.

It could just be me, but I often feel as though even our Jewish religious culture rejects the fundamental attitude of religious awe, focusing instead exclusively on scholarship, achievement, image, news, and a variety of other public and social things. I think it's time to shift the scales a bit, especially in this era of Facebook and Twitter, and time to focus more on private faith, quality of character, and authentic religious experience. I'm no prophet, but it seems to me the shechinah is shedding tears during this time of joy. If She isn't, I am, and I know I'm not alone.