Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Ten Commandments: A Retrospective on My Son's Bar Mitzvah

(4 years ago, I wrote this piece in honor of my son Ilan's Bar Mitzvah. 4 years later, and for many years to come, its message still holds true, not only for Ilan, but for all of us).

Sometime during the 13th Century, in a private study in Barcelona, an anonymous author sat and composed Sefer Ha-Chinuch (The Book of Education). This systematic study of the Torah’s 613 commandments was beautifully written as a gift from a father to his son. In his introduction, the author lovingly states that he wrote this book “to inspire the heart of my boy, my son, with an accounting of the mitzvot…”

This week, I write these words “to inspire the heart of my boy,” my son Ilan, who celebrates his Bar Mitzvah this coming Shabbat. I compose these thoughts on Parashat Yitro as a gift to my son, with the hope that the sacred words Ilan will read from the Torah this Shabbat – especially the section known as the “Aseret Hadibrot” – The Ten Commandments – will inspire him to live a life that reflects the timeless values of these special commandments.

So, Ilan, what is it about these “Ten Commandments” that is so special? The actual translation of Aseret Hadibrot is not “Ten Commandments” (that would be “Aseret Hamitzvot”), rather “Ten Utterances.” This section is unique amongst the commandments because these ten were spoken directly by God to the Jewish People.

While preparing to read your parasha, Ilan, you noticed that the ta’amim (cantillation notes) for the Aseret Hadibrot is more elaborate, and that the verses are much longer. You learned that the public reading of the Aseret Hadibrot is done in Ta’am Elyon (Upper Cantillation), which does not divide the verses grammatically, rather by commandment, reflecting exactly how God uttered them at Mount Sinai. You learned that when chanting the Aseret Hadibrot, a special aura of reverence sets in, as you are chanting the very words that God spoke at Mount Sinai.

Why did God choose to speak these ten? To address this question, we pause to reflect on the power of spoken words. From the very beginning of time, the Torah teaches us about the power of words.

Genesis Chapter 1 tells of God creating the world. Not a single scientific detail is provided about the process of creation; instead, we are taught that “God said…and there was...” Throughout Chapter 1, “God says,” and with the power of the spoken word, God creates the entire world. We are reminded of this every morning during our prayers, when we recite Baruch She’amar V’haya Ha-Olam – Blessed be He who spoke and the world came into being.

The Talmud teaches: “Through ten utterances, God created the world” (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 32a).  Ten Utterances – sounds familiar. This parallel between the Ten Utterances of Creation and the Ten Utterances at Mount Sinai drew the attention of The Ba’al Haturim commentary (11th/12the Century, Germany/Spain). In examining both sections, he discovered something special about the opening line of both sections: they each contain the exact same number of words and letters.

Genesis 1:1: Breshit bara Elokim et ha-shamayim v’et ha’aretz (In the beginning, God created heaven and earth). In Hebrew, 7 words and 28 letters.

Exodus 20:1: Va-Yedaber Elokim et kol ha-d’varim ha-eleh le’mor (God spoke all these words saying). In Hebrew, 7 words and 28 letters.

This remarkable parallel of words and letters brings me to the message that I believe is embedded within these parallels. It is the message that I hope you take with you throughout your life, my dear Ilan (and all others who may be reading).

The job of an architect is to design and build a home. Once he has completed the home, and the inhabitants obtain the key and move in, the architect has nothing to say on how the inhabitants are to live within that home. There may be instructions for certain appliances, but there is no instruction manual on how to live a happy and successful life within the home.

In Genesis 1, God is an architect who builds a home. In ten utterances, introduced by a verse containing 7 words and 28 letters, God designs and builds a home for all of humanity.

But God goes beyond the role of an architect.

In Exodus 20, with the Aseret Hadibrot – Ten Utterances – also introduced by a verse containing 7 words and 28 letters – God provides an instruction manual on how to live in the home that He built for us.

We are taught about ethical monotheism, shunning idolatry, respecting God’s name, taking a day in seven to relax and rejuvenate, respecting parents, respecting human life, establishing faithful relationships, respecting the property of others, living honestly and shunning jealousy.

In ten utterances, God built a physical world… and in ten utterances, God established a moral code for all of us.

My dear Ilan: God’s physical world is beautiful, but filled with twists and turns, ups and downs, stability and surprises. These beautiful Aseret Hadibrot that you proudly read on your Bar Mitzvah shall serve as your moral compass, helping you navigate through life’s challenges. May they guide you, along with the entire Nation of Israel whose minyan you now join.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Banning Female Clergy

This week I write to you from Jerusalem, where – despite the new administration’s talk to move the U.S. Embassy here --I have actually heard very little discussion about the new president or anything connected to him.

What was more talked about – at least in the circles I walk in – was the joint statement released last week by the Orthodox Union (OU) and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), effectively placing a ban (sorry, just had to use that term!) on Orthodox female clergy and any Orthodox synagogue who employs female clergy. The statement made it very clear that there is absolutely no room for women to hold any title – rabbi or otherwise – that involves serving an Orthodox community in a clergy role:

“We believe that a woman should not be appointed to serve in a clergy position. This restriction applies both to the designation of a title for women that connotes the status of a clergy member, as well as to the appointment of women to perform clergy functions on a regular ongoing basis - even when not accompanied by a rabbinic type title.”

The discussion about this statement was heating up this week in Jerusalem, as there are a few large Orthodox synagogues in the heart of Jerusalem that actually do have female clergy, and, of course, many others that do not. This – not any other bans – was the talk of the town in Jerusalem this week.

The timing of this discussion couldn’t be better. This week’s Torah portion – Parashat B’Shalach – features the Exodus from Egypt, the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, and the beautiful Shirat Ha-Yam (Song at the Sea). It also features a very strong woman.

The figure traditionally associated with the Exodus is Moses, yet the Talmud states: “It is by the merit of the righteous women of that generation that the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt” (Talmud, Sotah 11:b).

The leader of that generation’s righteous women was Miriam, Moses’ older sister. Miriam was the only woman in the Torah who had the status of a “Neviah” – a prophetess. In this week’s parasha, she is described as “Miriam Ha-Neviah” – “Miriam the Prophetess.” Rashi comments that she attained the status of a prophetess when she foresaw that her mother would give birth to a boy who would lead the Jewish people out of Egyptian bondage. But in addition to her prediction, when her prophecy actually was fulfilled and the boy was born, she did not sit idly by and say “I told you so.” Instead, like a true leader who takes action, she also took care of the boy…and, I gather, you know the rest of the story. Without Miriam’s wisdom -- the instinctive and nurturing wisdom of a woman -- the exodus would not have been possible, and as the Passover Haggadah says, “Perhaps we would still be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” We became liberated due to the foresight of a female leader, a prophetess.

As the sea closed on Pharaoh’s chariots, Moses leads the Jewish people in a beautiful song of triumph and thanks to God. This song (shira) – the first song ever in the Torah – is a part of our daily prayer service, and its presence in this week’s parasha gives this Shabbat a special name – Shabbat Shira.

But the voice of Jewish leadership in this episode was not exclusively male. Just as Moses completes his song, the Torah immediately tells us that “Miriam the Prophetess…took a drum in her hand, and all of the women followed her with drums and with dances. Miriam said: Sing unto God, for he is highly praised, the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:20-21).

At the peak of the most miraculous moment in Jewish history, the voices of two prophets – Moses, a man, and Miriam, a woman – were equally heard by the Jewish people, and by God.

Related to this week’s parasha is also this week’s haftara (prophetic portion) from the Book of Judges -- Chapters 4&5 -- the longest haftara of the year. Haftarot are typically chosen due to their thematic connection with the parasha. This week’s haftara relates to the parasha in two ways: 1. It tells the story of a female leader, Devorah, who also had the title “Neviah” (prophetess). Devorah was a prophetess, a judge and a warrior. She was the absolute leader of the Jewish people in her era. 2. It records a lengthy song of military triumph and praise to God (similar to the Song at the Sea), sung by Devorah.

Once again, a woman leads our people, and a woman sings…and we don’t see any opposition to this anywhere in the text.

The Biblical, Talmudic and Rabbinic texts grant prominent status to Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, Leah, Miriam the Prophetess, Devorah the Prophetess, Esther, Ruth, Bruriah, Rashi’s daughters and many other women throughout our history. They are considered important and influential voices of spiritual and political leadership in the Jewish community, sometimes tasked with the heavy burden of saving our people from annihilation or leading our people in times of war.

Indeed, the timing of this week’s Torah portion couldn’t be better. How funny that on the same Shabbat when a congregant hears the Torah and Haftarah talking about two women who are both leaders and prophets, he/she will then go to the kiddush after services and most probably hear fellow congregants talking about how women cannot serve as clergy.

The irony of that is, well…you figure it out.

Shabbat Shalom

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

To Unite, Not to Divide: Rav Uziel's Big Sephardic Ideas

Rav Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel (1880-1953) was a visionary rabbinic leader, a strong promoter of Jewish unity, and the 20th century’s most authentic embodiment of the classic Sephardic rabbinic tradition. His leadership was characterized, on the one hand, by a burning desire to abolish divisions between Jews, yet at the same time he was committed to promoting Sephardic Judaism. How did he reconcile these seemingly conflicting agendas?

As the Haham Bashi (Ottoman-appointed Chief Rabbi) of Jaffa-Tel Aviv (1911-1939), and then as the Rishon L’Zion of the pre-state Yishuv (1939-1947) and of the State of Israel (1948-1953), Rav Uziel was officially the “Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel”. But despite holding an official title and position that seems to have ethnic and particularistic overtones, Rav Uziel was an outspoken proponent of Jewish unity. He passionately sought to abolish the traditional ethnic divisions amongst Jews, especially in Israel. His push for Jewish unity was persistent and thorough, and he articulated his vision of Jewish unity in many forums, including public addresses, written position papers and halakhic rulings. From his earliest moments as a young rabbinic leader, all the way through to his famous “Spiritual Will to the Jewish People” written a few weeks before his death in 1953, Rav Uziel advocated Jewish unity as an ideal position.

If Rav Uziel so actively sought Jewish unity as an ideal, then what was his understanding of his own particular title and role as a Sephardic Chief Rabbi? What was Rav Uziel’s definition of Sephardic Judaism within the context of a Jewish community that, in his own view, should no longer express these ethnic divisions?

In order to answer this question, it is helpful to begin in 1911 when, upon being appointed Haham Bashi of Jaffa, Rav Uziel articulated a grand vision of unity for the Jewish people:

            “It is my tremendous desire to unify all of the divisions that the diaspora tore us into, the separate communities of Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Temanim (Yemenites), etc. This should not be a difficult task, for unity is in our nature and our national character as a people. These divisions amongst us are not natural. The particular linguistic and communal divisions that exist amongst us were created due to our dispersion throughout the diaspora. As we now return to our natural homeland, there is absolutely no reason to continue living by these communal and linguistic divisions imported from the diaspora. Instead, we will be one unified community. Should I succeed in helping to quickly realize and fulfill this unity amongst us, great will be my merit.”  

This was Rav Uziel’s “I have a dream” speech. Fully aware of the 1900 year history in which Jews lived as separate and distinct communities throughout the diaspora — with different rabbis, customs, languages, prayer rituals and halakhic rulings dividing them — Rav Uziel nonetheless believes that unifying the Jewish people “should not be a difficult task” because the divisions born in the diaspora are alien to the essence of the Jewish people. He does not consider his desire to abolish the diaspora’s divisions into Sephardim and Ashkenazim to be a new or radical idea but a return to our true nature. He declares that unity “is in our national character,” and by becoming “one unified community” we are returning to our original essence as a people.

The most remarkable part of this speech is the context in which it was delivered — an acceptance speech upon becoming the Haham Bashi of Jaffa. As he accepted a title and position traditionally associated with the Sephardic community in the Land of Israel, Rav Uziel boldly declares that, as Haham Bashi, he will serve the entire community and work tirelessly to abolish the divisions amongst all Jews. Rav Uziel does not see his position as a Sephardic rabbi in the narrowly ethnic sense, rather as a potentially unifying force within the Jewish world. This being the case, what, if anything, did being a “Sephardic Rabbi” mean to Rav Uziel?

In 1930, at a gathering celebrating his 50th birthday, Rav Uziel addressed the apparent contradiction between preaching unity while maintaining Sephardic Judaism. Responding to the several friends who spoke his praises that night, Rav Uziel began by re-affirming his passion for Jewish unity:

            “In his address tonight, my friend and colleague Rabbi Fishman touched upon the Sephardic and Ashkenazic elements within me. I have already expressed on many occasions that I do not relate to any distinctions or separations between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. It is not the countries of Spain (Sepharad) or Germany (Ashkenaz) that gave us great Torah scholars, rather the Torah itself—regardless of locale—that has inspired generation after generation of Torah learning.

            To my childhood friend, the honorable author A. Elmaliach, I say: I love the concept of unity for our people, and my goal is to see the elimination of the unnatural divisions amongst us that were created by the diaspora. I absolutely hate divisiveness, and I sharply condemn and reject all divisiveness masked as religion.”

These words bear a striking resemblance to the vision Rav Uziel articulated in his inaugural address as Haham Bashi of Jaffa in 1911. Except this time, in addition to his well-known love for Jewish unity, Rav Uziel added some personal reflections on Sephardic Judaism:

            “However, hand in hand with my love for unity, I want to draw the distinction between unity and self-belittlement. It is my goal to see unity amongst us in the field of work and [my emphasis] in the field of literary creations. Therefore, may it come to pass, that from the descendants of the great rabbis from Spain, once again will emerge Poskim (halakhic decisors) and Darshanim (homiletical preachers), Hokrim (philosophers) and Meshorerim (poets), Parshanim (Biblical commentators) and Mekubalim (mystics/kabbalists). This is my goal, and this is my prayer. It is from this ideological worldview that I lent a hand to strengthen the World Federation of Sephardim, but from the very first moment, I told them that their most important mission lies in the areas of culture and Torah. More than once, I asked to create, under their umbrella, a Beit Midrash L’Rabbanim (a Rabbinical School), because I believe that Torah and higher intellectual education are the foundations for peace and unity amongst us.”

In a bold expression of his own identity, mission and purpose as a Sephardic rabbi, Rav Uziel articulates an intellectual definition of Sephardic Judaism. He distinguishes between “unity and self-belittlement” in order to ensure that unity does not suppress the voices of his own Sephardic rabbinic forebears. Rav Uziel’s goal of unity would not come at the expense of his own classic Sephardic tradition. Rather than abolish Sephardic Judaism, he sought to redefine its purpose within the larger context and goal of national revival and Jewish unity.

In Rav Uziel’s broad vision, Sephardic Judaism would no longer reflect an ethnic definition but instead would offer an intellectual-spiritual framework for the entire Jewish people. To this end, Rav Uziel envisioned the establishment of a Sephardic Beit Midrash that would revive the unique curriculum that characterized the yeshivot and academies in Spain and, in turn, produce a new generation of Sephardic-style but universally Jewish, “Poskim (halakhic decisors) and Darshanim (homiletical preachers), Hokrim (philosophers) and Meshorerim (poets), Parshanim (Biblical commentators) and Mekubalim (mystics/kabbalists).” This would be a “Sephardic” Beit Midrash thanks to its approach to Torah study, not because of the ethnic background of its students.

All Jews, irrespective of their ethnic origins, would be able to study in such an academy, and its rabbinical graduates would serve the entire Jewish community. Rav Uziel believed that the uniquely Sephardic approach that was developed in Golden Age Andalusia, where yeshivot seamlessly merged Talmudic scholarship, practical Halakhic decision-making, philosophical inquiry, poetic creativity, Torah interpretation and mystical speculation, all under one roof, could serve as an exemplary model and unifying force for the Jewish people. Far from being mutually exclusive, Rav Uziel believed that Jewish unity and the Sephardic intellectual tradition are complementary. He specifically wanted to open a Sephardic Beit Midrash, because he believed that its broad worldview would benefit the entire Jewish people and serve as a foundation, “for peace and unity amongst us.”

In an address to a Sephardic convention in 1939, Rav Uziel expressed why the term “Sephardic” was, indeed, so honorable:

            “To be Sephardic is honorable primarily because of the type of Torah study, philosophical research and poetry that came from our midst.”

The honor of Sephardic Judaism derives from the intellectual-spiritual tradition that, historically speaking, developed in the Sephardi world but that is open, in principle, to all Jews. 

Following his election as Rishon L’Zion in 1939, Rav Uziel further explored the issue of what type of yeshivot and Batei Midrash would be opened in the Zionist Yishuv. In a lengthy article tracing the historical development of yeshivot and Batei Midrash, Rav Uziel articulates some of the key historical differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazic yeshivot. This is yet another expression of his unique understanding of Sephardic Judaism:

            “Yeshivot were divided into two centers of learning, known by their general name of Sefarad (Spain) and Ashkenaz (Germany). This division does not only reflect a geographic divide, rather it primarily reflects a difference in curriculum and methodology.

            The Sephardic Geonim (scholars) engaged in Talmudic study and composed many works of Talmudic interpretation, but the primary purpose of these works was to clearly explain Talmudic sections in depth, to link these sections to other relevant sections within the Talmud, with the ultimate goal of arriving at practical halakhic decisions. This is different than the yeshivot of France and Ashkenaz, who limited their scope of Talmudic study to analysis of the text.

            Furthermore, the Sephardic rabbis widened the spectrum of the yeshiva curriculum to include philosophical inquiry, as well as a wide range of sciences and general knowledge that they studied from non-Torah literature. The rabbis of France and Ashkenaz fenced themselves into the exclusive world of Talmud and Midrash, fearing that the penetration of external knowledge would create theological confusion amongst its students. For this reason, they feared the study of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed.”

Needless to say, Rav Uziel studied, and wrote about, the Guide for the Perplexed.

In 1940, Rav Uziel realized his dream and opened the yeshiva Sha’arei Zion in Jerusalem. The curriculum reflected the broad-based Sephardic program he envisioned, and in keeping with the non-ethnic character of the institution, the student body was comprised of Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike. In fact (and perhaps to make his point), the Rosh Yeshiva appointed to preside over the Sephardic curriculum in Sha’arei Zion was Rav Eliezer Waldenberg, a young Ashkenazi rabbinic scholar. Also known as the Tzitz Eliezer (the name of his multi-volume responsa on Jewish law), Rav Waldenberg held particular expertise in both Ashkenazi and Sephardi rabbinical literature. This, along with his broad interest in medical issues and his tendency towards practical halakhic rulings, made Rav Waldenberg an ideal reflection of Rav Uziel’s vision for the yeshiva.

For slightly over a decade, Shaarei Zion succeeded in educating a unique cadre of rabbis who served in Jewish communities all over the world. These rabbis – Ashkenazim and Sephardim -- distinguished themselves as leaders whose leadership and teachings reflected Rav Uziel’s newly re-defined Sephardi worldview that was taught in the yeshiva’s daily curriculum.

In 1955, Sha’arei Zion unfortunately closed its doors. What lead to its closure? In 1951, Rav Waldenberg accepted a prestigious appointment as a dayan (rabbinical judge) in Tel Aviv. Two years later, after a long bought with diabetes, Rav Uziel passed away. Although the yeshiva desperately tried to survive for another few years, the loss of its visionary, and of the Rosh Yeshiva he selected, marked the demise of Sha’arei Zion. Its closure not only marked the end of an institution, but of Rav Uziel’s vision for a yeshiva with a broad definition of “Torah study.” Future yeshivot in Israel, including self-defined “Sephardi yeshivot,” adopted the “strictly Talmud” curriculum of the classic Lithuanian yeshivot.   

In a rapidly changing Jewish world where ethnic differences take a back seat to fierce ideological divisions, Rav Uziel’s teachings offer a refreshing approach to Jewish communal life. As a Chief Rabbi who worked tirelessly for Jewish unity, and whose teachings and way of life mirrored those of the Sephardic “Poskim, Darshanim, Hokrim, Meshorerim, Parshanim and Mekubalim” that he sought to revive, Rav Uziel represents a rabbinic ideal in which Jewish unity and Sephardic Judaism are not mutually exclusive.

This unique blend of unity and Sephardic Judaism came together in symbolic fashion during Rav Uziel’s inaugural speech as Rishon L’Zion in 1939. Speaking his characteristically poetic Hebrew and fully donned in the traditional embroidered robe and turban of a Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Rav Uziel proudly proclaimed: “my sacred mission is to unite, not to divide.”