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Friday, August 19, 2016

Vaetchanan: City of Light

"I plead before God.." -Yoram Raanan

It was a few years back, and my wife and I were just settling into our new home after an exhausting move from New York to Los Angeles. At about 2 a.m., we awoke to what sounded like cannon balls crashing outside our window. We headed for the door, and, under the yellow halo of streetlamps, found a dozen neighbors staring in shock at four wrecked cars.
In the middle of the road, a young man, maybe 19 or 20, wandered about like a lost child at an amusement park. Dazed, he mumbled like an incantation: “My life is over … It wasn’t even my car … My life’s over ....”
Someone asked, “How did you manage to hit three parked cars?”
“Texting,” he replied.
By 3 a.m., the police had arrived. Their explanation was different: DUI.
Handcuffed and seated in the back of the squad car, the young man’s face was ashen. He looked like he regretted the day he was born. I fell asleep wondering how long would it take before this young man would smile again? Would he see the sunrise from a county jail cell?
It made me think of this week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan, which begins with Moshe pleading to enter the Promised Land despite a terrible mistake he had made earlier. “I beseeched God … Please, let me go over, that I may see the good land that is beyond the Jordan” (Deuteronomy 3:23-25).
According to the Midrash, Moshe’s despair was as boundless as the sea: “Moshe donned sackcloth and put ashes on his head. He said to God, ‘Let me at least go as a beast of the field.’ ‘No.’ ‘Let me go as bird,’ ‘No.’ ‘What of my bones?’ ‘No’ ” (Yalkut Shimoni).
Moshe was punished for unleashing his temper upon the children of Israel, for striking the rock in anger, and what was done and could not be undone. Despite his regret, no matter his remorse, Moshe would never enter the Promised Land. As it says in the Torah, God was wrathful … and would not listen” (Deuteronomy 3:26).
But what does Moshe do next? How does he deal with his mistake and the greatest disappointment of his life? After Moshe concludes his initial speech at the beginning of the parsha and just before the repetition of the Ten Commandments, the Torah records something that seems rather out-of-place.
“It was then that Moshe designated three cities of refuge East of the Jordan, from where the sun rises” (Deuteronomy 4:41). Cities of refuge — arei miklat — were designated for those who murdered without intent. The example the Torah gives is when the axe head flies off the handle, striking a passerby. Today, it could be the driver who hits a pedestrian while texting or because he or she was flush from drink. 
The question is asked: Why does Moshe himself designate these three cities, since the commandment to set aside cities of refuge was not required until Canaan had been conquered? The responsibility seems like it should fall on the shoulders of Joshua, not Moshe! Furthermore, why do we need to be reminded that the East Bank of the Jordan is where the sun rises? The sun always rises in the east.
The Talmud, Tractate Makkot (10a) gives the following answer: Said R. Simlai: “What is the meaning of the verse, ‘Then Moses separated three cities beyond the Jordan, toward the sun’s rising?’ Said the Holy One Blessed be He to Moshe: ‘You have made the sun rise for murderers.’ ”
We have to appreciate the symbolism of the Talmud. Here we have Moshe facing west — towards Jerusalem, Hebron, Beersheba … and the sunset, Moshe is approaching the end of his life, and while he may not enter the homeland of the Jewish people, he decides to designate cities of refuge in the east, in the place where the sun also rises, for those who must flee their homeland, for those who seek a new day. 
In other words, Moshe takes his despair and he channels it. “I beseeched God”— Here I am at the doorstep of the Promised Land and I am denied entry for the things that I have done. But I am not going to collapse from regret; rather, I am going to do something for those who suffer from the worst kind of regret imaginable: Those who have taken a life. I am going to give them another chance.
Moshe deigns to make the sun rise even for the murderer.
This past week we marked the ninth of Av, when Jews around the globe recalled all the mistakes and tragedies that have befallen us. And there have been many. Perhaps the message of Moshe Rabbenu is no matter how terrible the night, there is always a city of refuge, a city of hope, off in the east.
After Tisha b’Av, there comes a morning.  Even after a terrible car crash, there is a new sun. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Shemot: The Destruction of Memory

Image: (Raphael) Raffaello Santi - Raphael/Joseph a.Pharaoh s dreams/c.1515
Joseph Interpets Pharaoh's Dreams (c. 1515)
Raphael Santi 

Rabbi Yehuda Hausman 

 A new king arose over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. And [Pharaoh] said to his people: Behold, a nation — the Children of Israel — are more numerous and mightier than we. Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply … for when it happens that a war befalls us, they too shall join our enemies, and fight against us, and leave the land. And so they set taskmasters upon them … to afflict them with their burdens … (Exodus 1:8-11).

Before the curse of the mallet and the tyrannical command of the lash, before Egypt grew into a horror house of bondage, there occurred a peculiar act of ignorance: “A new king arose over Egypt, who knew not Joseph.”

Whether this king indeed knew nothing of Joseph has long been a matter of some debate. Historically, it is possible that a new monarchy arose, on the heels of some war, perhaps, which held none of the old allegiances to Joseph and his family. Others argue that this “new” Pharaoh was well aware of how Joseph saved Egypt from economic collapse, but like many a dictator, Pharaoh feigned unfamiliarity whenever it suited him.

One might ask how the fate of an entire people could hinge on the dissipating memory of a single individual? And even so, given that servitude is a crime particularly heinous, don’t the preliminaries leading to one nation’s enslavement of another seem of little import in the greater scheme of a nation’s unimaginable distress?

But the Torah may have wished to inform us of a powerful idea — that ignorance is always the precursor to persecution. When we forget the humanity of our fellows, when we forget those initial chapters of Genesis, wherein God endows each of us with his very image and breath, that’s when violence is sure to follow.

Joseph, if we recall, was described as a “man of God,” “a man of wisdom”; (Genesis 41:38-39). his wisdom and compassion save Egypt and its people from the perils of famine, and yet it is this Joseph of whom Pharaoh is unaware. When Moses first encounters Pharaoh, Pharaoh asks mockingly, “Who is this Hebrew God that I should heed his voice?” (Exodus 5:2). Within a heart of darkness, one finds a heart that also revels in ignorance.

It is no coincidence, then, that the panacea to persecution is an act of memory. We read later in this week’s Torah portion, “And God heard [Israel’s] cries, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And God saw the Children of Israel, and God knew” (Exodus 2:24-25). In the very next chapter, God sets Moses on the path to rescuing Israel. The restoration of a people is thus linked to a restoration of memory.

I have long found it fascinating that the culprits in the beginning of Exodus all happen to be men. In contrast, with the exception of Moses, exclusively women carry out heroic behavior. It is Pharaoh and his taskmasters who set to casting Hebrew male infants into the Nile, while it is Egypt’s midwives who interfere. In terms of Moses’ rescue, his father and brother do nothing, rather it is his mother, sister and, finally, Pharaoh’s own daughter who conspire to save Moses’ life.

Against this backdrop, let us read the following verses describing events in Moses’ early life. “When Moses had grown, he went out to his brethren to see their suffering. And he saw an Egyptian man striking an Israelite man — his brother. He turned this way and that, and seeing no man, Moses struck the Egyptian” (Exodus 2:11-12). In context, Moses turns about to see if there were any Egyptian men who might witness what he intended to do. The subtext, however, is that there was not a man around, beside Moses, who could “act like a man” in the moral sense and save this battered Israelite.

On the following day, Moses attempts to stop “two Israelite men” who were fighting. The instigator asks Moses acerbically: “Who appointed you a man, an officer, and a judge over us” (Exodus 2:14)? In context, Moses is being told to stay away, to mind his own business. But the subtext is a vanquished whisper: There are no men here, not anymore.

Every last Israelite man had forgotten how to be a man — how to act like a human being. Moses’ brethren resent him because they despise themselves. There was certainly valor among Israel’s women, but for its men, under whip and truncheon, there was only defeat. They, too, forgot Joseph.

Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is the spiritual leader of the The Shul on Duxbury, an independent Orthodox minyan. He is a teacher at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, and a lecturer at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He writes about the weekly parsha on his blog,

Friday, July 3, 2015

Balak: And Reason Shall Not Prevail

Rembrandt: Balaam and the Ass

“In all things, reason should prevail,” wrote William Penn. Yet in quite a few things, we have lost reason altogether.
In this week’s portion, Balak, the pagan king of the Moabites, is desperately trying to protect his commonwealth. Israel has just routed Moab’s neighbors—the Bashonites and Amorites—and Balak knows that his nation may very well be next.  So he engages the services of a non-Israelite prophet, Balaam, whose task is to get the God of Israel to curse the Jewish people.  
In terms of military history, praying to one’s personal deity for victory is hardly remarkable. That’s what prayer is for. No more surprising is hiring a cleric to pray on one’s behalf, that’s what clerics are for. What is surprising is that Balaam is not asked to appeal to Moab’s gods for assistance but to enlist the enemy’s God—the Redeemer of Israel—instead.  
By way of an imperfect analogy, imagine if in the Middle Ages a Catholic general were to ask the Pope to invoke Muhammad as a way to curry advantage against an invading Moslem army. The idea abounds with absurdity. Even if Muhammad had any say in the matter, why should he forsake devotees of the Koran for a people who entirely reject the Word of Allah?
Yet, this is Balak and Balaam’s very strategy. ‘Make the God of Israel abandon his flock of monotheists and embrace the pagans of Moab.’ As to be expected, the plan fails miserably; Balaam is compelled by God to bless Israel instead of cursing them. Which begs the question, why was the plan even attempted?
Rashi brings down an insightful teaching on the verse: “And Balaam awoke in the morning and saddled his donkey.” (Num. 22.21) He writes, “From here we learn that hatred destroys common sense.” Balaam had numerous servants that could have done all his packing, yet in his zeal to curse Israel, he saddled the donkey himself. The stubborn mule of passion stamped out the cool stoicism of reason. Balaam’s heart brimmed with so much hatred there was little room left for good sense.
This aspect of Balaam’s personality is alluded to in the conclusion of the story, after Balaam has unwillingly blessed Israel for a fourth and final time: “Balaam arose and went and returned to his place; and also Balak returned to his way” (24:25). Perhaps the larger sense of the verse is that the repeated interventions of God left no lasting impression in the hearts of both men. Each returns to his old habits and prejudices. The truly stubborn never learn.
Bertrand Russell once quipped: ‘Many people would rather die than think; in fact, most do.” The book of Joshua records that Israel eventually ‘put Balaam to the sword.’ (13.22) Balaam simply could not stay home indefinitely, he had to try again, and his compulsion to harm Israel eventually lead to his own demise.   
It is testament to Jewish tradition that in every generation, students and scholars expound and derive new meaning from our beloved texts, and yet somehow, there always remains some new idea to add to the halls of Jewish learning. I fear, however, that what this week’s thought does not add but detract.
For in recent years, when I imagine the face of Balaam, it tends to resemble a certain type of villain that has become the fodder of daily news.  Two weeks ago, Balaam resembled a young white man who walked into a Black church study group and with a single pistol turned nine parishioners into martyrs at an African-Methodist Church in Charleston, S.C.. Last Friday, Balaam’s face bore a liking to that of the ISIS terrorists who blew up a Shi’ite Mosque in Kuwait. Intermittently, it is the face of the Ayatollahs in Iran or the Imams of Hamas. As for the latter, no amount of bloodshed and war has diminished their faith in Israel’s inevitable destruction. Such is their stubborn hatred.
Readers are often struck by the absurdity of Balaam’s talking donkey.  Like the talking serpent in Eden, the narrative beckons for an allegorical interpretation instead of a historical or scientific explanation. What ought to be noted, however, is that well before this she-ass (supposedly) spoke, the Torah records three times that she “saw the messenger of the Lord” blocking her path. –All while Balaam saw naught.  Seeing must always precede speaking. Balaam “the prophet,” may have spoken God’s words, but he did so without seeing any godliness on his own.  

One lesson perhaps: We, who pursue tolerance, may reach out to those who cling to racism, anti-Semitism, religious intolerance. We long to start a dialogue. But if the Balaams of the world, do not first see, of what is there to speak?

Black, white and nameless: Parashat Beha’alotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)

Black, white and nameless: Parashat Beha’alotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)

And Miriam spoke, and Aaron, against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married: For he had married a Cushite woman”(Numbers 12:1).
Of the one woman, we know much; of the other, we know very little. 
Of Miriam, the prophetess, we are familiar with her deeds in Egypt and her song by the sea. We know her parents, Yocheved and Amram, and her brothers, Moses our teacher, and Aaron the High Priest. Of their likeness in Jewish history, none compare.
In the wilderness, no family was held in higher regard, and to the best of our knowledge, no woman was held in higher esteem. Upon Miriam’s death, we are told that the Congregation immediately thirsted for water (Numbers 20:1-2). The Talmud remarks that it was on account of Miriam’s righteousness that water flowed from the rock all those years in the wilderness (Taanith 9a).
In contrast, who is this other, “Cushite,” woman Moses reportedly has taken for a wife? She has no name, no family, no back story. However does she find herself in the camp of Israel and married to Moses, of all men? 
The first-century Jewish historian Josephus, perhaps to impress his Roman audience, records in his “Antiquities of the Jews” that in Moses’ younger years — as Prince of Egypt — he led a military campaign through the land of Ethiopia, and there took an Ethiopian princess, Tharbis, as his first wife. But if such a tradition about Moses existed in Israel’s collective memory — passed on orally outside the biblical canon — it likely would have found its way into early rabbinic texts such as the Midrash or Targum. No such text exists, making Josephus’ claim highly suspect. 
Slightly less implausible is an attempt to identify this Cushite woman with Moses’ Midianite wife, Tzippora, daughter of Yitro (see Rashi). But this raises difficulties. The Torah states twice in one verse (in case we doubted it) that Moses married a “Cushite woman.” Cush in the Bible begins in Ethiopia (below Egypt) and continues southward into Africa, quite a distance from the Midianite settlements in the Jordan-Arabia region. Imagine mistaking Sacramento for San Diego, or a Londoner for a Parisian.    
The simplest explanation, and the most credible, is that Moses took a second wife. We do not know the why or the when; and of the woman herself, we know little beyond her nationality. But perhaps half the lesson may be derived from the impoverished description of her personality, for it lays bare a stark difference in status and power between herself and Miriam.
How much more awful is the slander when a great woman such as Miriam, esteemed for her accomplishments and privileged by her familial bonds, criticizes a seeming “nobody,” an unnamed outsider from a distant and foreign land. With no blood ties to the Jewish people, or known accomplishments, her importance is derived from her husband. Without intrinsic worth, she is flippantly dismissed as Moses’ Cushite wife. 
The Torah does not detail what Miriam, and to some lesser extent Aaron, found bothersome about Moses and his wife. Perhaps Moses was neglecting his husbandly duties of intimacy with his beloved, or so claims Rashi. Perhaps Miriam and Aaron thought Moses’ Cushite wife to be unattractive; so writes Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra. More likely, Miriam thought it wrong that Moses should marry a foreigner instead of taking an Israelite wife. That Tzippora had been a foreigner could be forgiven, for at the time, Moses was living far from his brethren in Egypt when he took her as his wife. But later in the wilderness, among the Children of Israel, certainly Moses could have found a more fitting Israelite bride (Shadal).
Far more remarkable is what Miriam’s punishment says about her crime, for the Bible always metes out justice measure for measure. Miriam is publicly humiliated. First, Miriam’s skin turns flaky white by her having contracted tza’arat, the biblical skin disease. Second, she is shut outside the Israelite camp for seven days. In the Torah’s words, her personal shame was like that of a daughter whose “father spits before her face” in disgust (Numbers 12:14).
But how does this reprimand fit her offense? 
Conceivably, if Miriam used the term “Cushite” as a racial slur referring to skin color, it may be thought quite just that Miriam’s skin turned a sickly white color in rebuke. Additionally, if “Cushite” was used to convey the foreignness of Moses’ wife, it is fitting that Miriam is in turn made to feel the outsider as she is set apart outside the camp.  
Thus, in an instant, Miriam, an insider, comes to know the difficult predicament of being an alien — a predicament she should never have forgotten considering Israel’s sojourn in Egypt. 
What an apt lesson for minding the social divide between privileged and underprivileged, between those in the center and those on the fringes. After all, what an Israelite can suffer in Egypt, an Ethiopian can suffer in Israel. In God’s eyes, she who was superior today can become subordinate tomorrow, and vice versa. If Miriam can succumb to forgetfulness and pride, prejudice and xenophobia, we’d do well to doubly guard our words and deeds.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Shabbat Hagadol: A Question of Race

It has been a particularly troubling year for race relations in America. Places like Ferguson, Missouri have become emblematic of a deep and enduring frustration among many people of color: why is it so difficult to communicate to the vast majority of whites just what it feels like to be brown or black?

What is it to be refused a taxi, or shadowed by a clerk in a high-end boutique, what is it to be pulled off the highway, or refused an apartment or a job - all for being black - White women and men have been spared, by accident of birth, from such demeaning experiences.

As we enter Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath before Passover, the Jewish soul sets out on a journey to rediscover its past. Toward this end, with all that has happened this year, it seemed appropriate to compare Israel's experience of servitude in Egypt with the African-American experience of slavery in this country's lands.

Today's Jew has no immediate memory of the sting of the lash. Yet each Passover, the Children of Israel are commanded to imagine life beneath the fist of Pharaoh. In fact, each day, in our liturgy, we revisit slavery and Exodus during the recitation of Shema. All this may suggest that while the physical wounds of slavery healed long ago, as evidenced by our collective consciousness and a host of memorializing rituals, some scars are ineffaceable.

It is perhaps these ineffaceable scars that have made Jews empathic to the cause of Civil Rightsand great activists for social equality throughout the world. However, to believe that every minority suffers (or suffered) the same sort of oppression is itself a form of oppression. Against this end, I would like to suggest that in many ways African-American slaves suffered far more than the Hebrews did in Egypt.

It is true that both African-Americans and Israelites were enslaved for many years. Dr. King was fond of reminding his listeners that the first slave ship arrived on American shores in 1616, several years before the pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock on the Mayflower. His goal was to remind black Americans that they had as much right to the bounty of America as any of the white men and women whose ancestors had set sail from European ports. The length of Israel's enslavement is matter of some debate, one Biblical verse refers to a period of "four generations," another verse speaks of "400 hundred years" and yet another of "430 years." (Gen 15:13,16; Ex. 6; 12:40) However, Israel arrived in Egypt in a manner that was altogether different from African slaves who, stolen from their homes and packed like sardines in slave-ships, many did not survive the trek across the Atlantic. In contrast, Jacob and his clan of seventy souls arrived on royal wagons and were greeted, quite literally, with a King's welcome. (Gen. 46) At Joseph and Pharaoh's behest, they settled in Goshen, a fertile land, and were immediately charged with raising Pharaoh's herds. (Gen. 47)

If African-American slaves had no memory of their ancestors being free in America, the Children of Israel - through Joseph - were immediately integrated into the elite of Egyptian society. Restoring what is lost is a different battle than gaining what one never had.

Another difference. According to the American 'Slaves Codes,' black slaves could not own property, nor were their marriages accepted by many whites. The latter made it easier for white slave owners to break up families. Other plantation owners encouraged marriage so black men would not flee on account of their families. But black adults and children were chattel in every sense of the word. On the other hand, a close reading of the book of Exodus indicates that Israelites were left to marry whomever they liked: Of Moses' parents we read that "a Levite man went forth and took (in marriage) a Levite woman" (Ex. 2.1). It is also quite clear that the Israelites kept many personal possessions. Moses and Pharaoh negotiate at length about Israel's flocks and herds (Ex. 9:4; 10:9,24). Each family had its paschal lamb and a home in which to smear the blood of the Paschal Lamb.

This brings to mind another difference, Pharaoh, was little troubled by the fact that Israel's faith differed from the natives. Even the use of the sacred ram as a sacrifice could be mitigated and permitted if Israel travelled a three-day distance away from Egypt's population centers. (Ex. 8.23) In contrast, Africans slaves were forced to abandon their native religion and compelled to convert to Christianity.

In the years following the U.S. Civil War, the United States offered white pioneers acres upon acres of land to settle in the West. Despite the years of forced servitude, suffering and depravation, black citizens were given nothing in the way of restitution, nor were they even offered the same opportunities given to white pioneers in the late 19th century who went west in droves. In contrast, according to Jewish tradition, Israel plundered Egypt with gusto, taking gold, silver, and cloth. (Ex. 12.35)

A final difference. One can leave to the imagination to what extent the Semitic Israelites differed in appearance from the North-African Egyptians. It would hardly matter because whatever bigotries and prejudices existed among the Egyptians, all of that was left behind during the Exodus. Yet African-Americans had no such Exodus nor were they brought to any Promised Land. After the Civil War they may have been free from slavery, but they were never free from the racism and bigotries of their white neighbors. Left in destitute poverty and illiteracy, African-Americans hardly had the means to better their circumstances.

I will conclude with one common theme. We Americans love to idolize mythologies of self-made men and women. So beholden are we to "bootstrap" movies and books, we tend to forget the old truth that there is no redemption without intervention. The Passover Haggada is emphatic on this point, had it not been for God's outstretched hand, we would still be slaves to Pharaoh. Slavery would have never ended in this country without a President such as Lincoln, who was willing to endure the costs of hundreds of thousands of American lives.

With all the tragedies witnessed this year, perhaps I might suggest a fifth question during this year's seder: what is it like to be black in America? It is the sort of question Pharaoh's daughter most likely asked before she stretched her hand upon the Nile and rescued a little boy.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Parashat Teruma: Fair and Square

From the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

A cube is a geometric shape comprised of six identical squares. If the cube is hollow, these squares create an inner space, identical in length, width and height, equal in every dimension.

Too often, we think of architecture in pure utilitarian terms. What is this structure’s use? How does it function? How many occupants can it contain? But a hyper focus on content may obscure a greater meaning elicited by form.  

So, if one may ask, what is the message of a cube?

The Tabernacle’s design and architecture, described at length in this week’s Torah portion, were meant to express a monotheistic theology in three-dimensional form.  Much work was done exploring this theology in the last century by Jewish scholars such as rabbis Umberto Cassuto, Benno Jacob, and Jacob Milgrom.

For example, they point out that within the Holy of Holies — where the ark stood as a symbolic footstool or throne for God — one does not find a table for food, vessels for libations, a menorah for light or altars of any kind. Instead, a large curtain (parochet) separated the inner sanctum from the rest of the objects in the Tent of Meeting, e.g. the showbread table, incense altar and candelabrum. The copper altar for animal sacrifices was in a courtyard, entirely outside the Tent of Meeting.

The religious message was as emphatic as it was unequivocal. Israel might worship the Creator of Heaven and Earth with sacrifices and libations — akin to its pagan neighbors — but the Lord had no need for any of it, not food, drink, or light. This is one message of the Holy of Holies.

However, the architecture of the Holy of Holies expressed something else as well, because if one does the math, one realizes that its acacia wood walls formed a perfect 10-by-10-by10 cube. These dimensions suggest a type of theological equality. Indeed the Sanctuary was a place where God and Israel might meet, but more importantly, it was a space where all of Israel’s laity, young and old, men and women alike, could worship equally.

How so? For one, the large active courtyard where animal slaughter took place was mix-gendered. The book of Exodus describes groups of women who “assembled” in the courtyard “in front of the door Tent of Meeting” to pray (Exodus 38:8. Cf. Ibn-Ezra, Onkelos). If they desired or were required to bring sacrifices, women could slaughter the animal themselves, just like their male coreligionists.

A number of commentators point out that Leviticus begins with the inclusive phrase, “a person (adam) who brings an offering to the Lord … .” “Adam” is the generic term used in the Torah for “human being.” In Leviticus, it can also include non-Israelites, as well as Israelite women.

Maimonides, in his great Code of Law, states emphatically “men, women, and slaves bring sacrifices” in the Temple (Laws of Offerings 3:2), and the Medieval Scholars of Ashkenaz were of the same mind.

Perhaps because I am an Orthodox rabbi, I find that each year, as we read the latter half of the book of Exodus and make our way into Leviticus, I come face-to-face with the question of just what happened to this very old (yet revolutionary) egalitarian “cube”? In the Tabernacle, Hannah brought prayers and sacrifices to the very gate of the Tent of Meeting. In the late Second Temple period (42 CE), Queen Helene became a nazarite, and when her vow elapsed, she brought the obligatory pigeons to the altar. Her example led so many women to emulate her piety that sacrificial pigeon prices soared.  

Yet somehow, after the destruction of the Temple, the synagogue became a place where mainly men assembled, and women’s participation fell away. It is something of a historical mystery how the barrier — mechitzah — evolved separating the genders. Though indeed it is a very old custom, one finds no statute relegating the separation of men and women in a synagogue in the entirety of the Talmud or the great Codes of Law written by Maimonides or the Shulchan Aruch. In one letter, the brilliant Talmudist and founder of a yeshiva in Lakewood, N.J., Rav Aharon Kotler, freely admitted to this lacuna: “The Codes do not specifically discuss the special women’s gallery.”

While there are good reasons for why the Orthodox community has preserved the mechitzah, even as other denominations have long ago integrated women and men in synagogue worship, an honest analysis of the past is troubling. Women had a far more active and integrated role in the Temple and Tabernacle than they currently do in the contemporary Orthodox synagogue.

And here, if I may say something to my Orthodox fellows — something which is obvious to everyone but ourselves: Like it or not, the shape of our synagogue is not equal of measure.  

Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is the spiritual leader of the The Shul on Duxbury, an independent Orthodox minyan. He is a teacher at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, and a lecturer at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog,

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Is the Conversion Process Abusive? Part I

Is the Conversion Process Abusive? Part I
Rabbi Freundel, the RCA, and GPS

I am no therapist, nor do I serve on any court that performs conversions. Someone with both qualifications would be better suited to this task. But perhaps a few ‘inexpert’ observations, ‘circling the target’ as it were, will lead to expert ones that ‘hit the mark.'

I know a lot of converts. Also, being happily married to a convert, I am quite partial to the view that conversion is good for the Jews. However if there is one thing that I am also certain of, it is that Jews have not been good to converts. I know this because converts tell me so. Stories of lengthy and indefinite wait times, overbearing rabbis or excessively demanding rabbinic courts, unwelcoming communities, the challenge of finding a shidduch after conversion, and the constant anxiety that one’s conversion will be questioned or rejected…have caused a great many tears to flow.  Rarely do converts’ experiences of harassment, abuse, or discrimination come to public light. But there has been quite an exception recently.

Since late October 2014, allegations of ‘mikvah voyeurism’ by Rabbi Barry Freundel have garnered a great deal of media attention. If even half the stories are true of hidden video cameras and ‘practice mikvah dunks,’ the matter is truly shocking. However, in the aftermath of Freundel’s arrest by D.C. police, a host of additional accusations surfaced among Freundel’s female converts that they were conscripted into secretarial duties, as well as contentions that Freundel conducted less than appropriate financial dealings with his converts.

Most strange was the piece of news that in 2012 some women reported Rabbi Freundel to the Rabbinical Council of America. They brought forward their contentions about being compelled to perform clerical work and claimed that R. Freundel was soliciting them for suspiciously large donations to his conversion court. The RCA investigated Freundel, confronted him, and apparently settled the matter satisfactorily, at least in their own minds.

What is so remarkable about this event is the fact that R. Freundel served on the executive committee of the RCA at the time and continued to do so afterward. (He was only suspended recently.) And while I am aware of no evidence that the RCA acted dishonorably, if it is assumed that the investigation was conducted by close colleagues and friends, one does wonder at the impartiality of the process. Can one rabbinic court truly be trusted with overseeing the workings of another (friendly) rabbinic court? What if it is really just the same court or system of courts?

One must consider Rabbi Freundel’s central role on the RCA’s conversion committee. In 2007, the RCA set about to completely standardize and restructure on a national level its policies and procedures for conversion. The system, still in place, was titled “Gerus Policies and Standards,” or “GPS.” The Chairman of the GPS committee and its presumptive chief architect was none other than Rabbi Barry Freundel himself. In his role, Rabbi Freundel defended GPS against criticism from rabbis such as Marc Angel and Avraham Weiss. It behooves us to ask how diligently the RCA’s executive committee or conversion committee investigated its own chairman of GPS?

One of GPS’s stated aims is “avoiding unnecessary confusion and anguish” but what is there to say or do when one of its key draftsman is found, then and now, to be a central cause for “confusion and anguish” among converts?

And here I would like to suggest a much bigger question. Perhaps there is something awry about the entire conversion process. Perhaps the ordeal of the conversion lends itself to exploitation and abuse. Most rabbis are decent and honest, and many, may they be blessed, are a lot better than decent and honest, so it is easy therefore to dismiss the small minority who twist the upright path. But the pursuit of sin can only occur when there is ample opportunity.

I wonder if the creation of GPS implemented a system conducive to exploitation by the devious or deviant? And here is the thrust of my contention, perhaps Rabbi Freundel should be held responsible, along with those who assisted him, for crafting a system that puts converts in just the sort of nebulous position where they can easily be manipulated, preyed upon, and abused.

To be continued in a day or two….