Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Will all of the understanding moderates please stand up?

As the song goes from decades ago, “when will we ever learn; when will we ever learn?” I always feel like I should be a responsible citizen of the world, Jew, mother and wife, professional, etc. and know what is going on in the world. Our 18 year-old-son, who is definitely a Current Events Junkie, makes sure I know what is happening on our planet in its various corners. The sad part is that inevitably I am depressed and ask myself why I have just subjected myself to yet more stories of abuse, extremism and lack of understanding of what this thing we call humanity is really all about. That’s when the words that so remind us all of Peter. Paul and Mary and so many others of that “can’t we fix this world” era become the ever-present refrain in my head.

So last week in my dutiful attempt to keep up with the news, I read about Sahar Majid, this seemingly lovely and intelligent young Pakistani woman who dared to walk outside of her house in Western clothing and had to deal with the stares and statements of disapproval that greeted her wherever she went. Then there is ten-year-old Nujood Ali, the Yemenite girl who is now known everywhere for having obtained a divorce – AT TEN YEARS OF AGE, in case you missed that little fact. Then there is the case of Israel Meir Kin, who has decided NOT to give his wife a Jewish divorce and then go and marry another woman in this country! Brandeis changes its mind about honoring Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has become an extremist on the other side, being very anti-Moslem. Then to top off my week of recreational reading, I open The Jerusalem Report (my absolutely favorite magazine in the world) to read about the war between Jews who protect a very right wing notion of Israel at all costs and those who have responded as anti-Zionists as well articulated by Tibor Krausz. And of course then there is the entanglement of Ukraine and Russia to address. And so it continues….

This week I think I am returning to my NO NEWS OR MEDIA diet for a bit of a rest. With catching up after Pesach, there won’t be much reading time to worry about anyway I guess.

We as Jews teach that the Second Temple was destroyed because of Sinat Chinam (causeless hatred bringing so much pain to others), though I was just informed that members of our religiously observant Jewish community are ardently teaching that it was destroyed because of basketballs being thrown on Shabbat or Yom Tov (inside an Eruv mind you!)…. Who knew they even played basketball in those times? By the way, there are indeed texts about ball playing, materials of which they are made, engaging in meaningless activity, issues of cleanliness and impurity and such in the Gemara to be fair, but stay with me here…. I totally understand and respect that there are members of our larger religious Jewish community who accept this restriction on Shabbat and Yom Tov as activity that is not appropriate for that day. My point is that the abuses cited here are not appropriate ANY DAY and we should be as passionate and strict about teaching that to ALL of our community members!!

The question I am posing is why is there not absolute outrage unanimously in the Orthodox community about Mr. Kin’s practice of leaving his WIFE as an Agunah – chained woman – while he goes off for a wedding with another woman (and by the way, I want to know -- what was SHE thinking?!?!?!) Why are there not more Moslems publicly decrying the abuses of women that seem to be an accepted part of daily life in many predominately Moslem countries all too often? Why isn’t every RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATION and community with leaders who are known to be sex offenders not publicly denouncing them? I am sad when I hear about anyone who is so ANTI-ANY RELIGION as an entire system, because I do believe that religion can and often does bring out the best in us. However, when it does not, there needs to be a clear and serious acknowledgement of this factor and our community leaders, whoever they are, MUST speak out about these challenges to the well-being of all of us collectively!

Interestingly and sadly enough, in each and every one of these cases (and I am sorry, there are too many to just dismiss as an exception), what we see is exercising extreme stringency in one area of law but personal permission granted in other areas. Men who promise their young daughters as wives as a means of a business deal or personal standing, or worse, as happened not long ago, as a way to blackmail a wife who wanted a divorce in the religious Jewish community MUST BE SANCTIONED! Religious leaders have to seriously consider how abuses by the most strictly observant of their groups are directly correlative with those on the left who become so anti-Moslem; anti-Christian, anti-Judaism or anti-Israel and so on.

Here is something to consider. Look back at the examples in this short review. Notice the degree of abuse of women and that this abuse is way too often at the hands of men. Notice the incidences of Rabbis, Priests and other religious leaders (all of whom are male) who have been recently indicted for various abuses of their office, directed at women or children most often. Think about who are the victims of "Honor Killings!"

In this time during which women’s roles are still moving beyond the limits of the glass ceiling, let us hope that our increasing number of women leaders and exemplars will change the tide which has been moving in such a frightening direction. I do believe that women will be the ones very often to gather the moderates and have them advance an agenda of caring and compassion. I already see it. In intergroup dialogue, there are often more women involved. In various groups in Israel where Palestinians and Israelis are working to live together in a more constructive manner, women are ever-present. Most of those who speak out the most about these abuses are in fact women. Further, women are working in amazing ways through NGO's and other means to counteract the harmful results of many of these abuses. Even 10 year-old Nujood Ali has learned to speak up to get her divorce and take charge of the life that controlling men in her world tried to steal!

As we consider the lessons of Pesach and the leaving of Egypt to reclaim our personal freedoms, let’s remember that those freedoms will be protected and defended by the moderates amongst us. Now, let’s all stand up!

Friday, April 4, 2014

This week's Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia -- Tackling Issues in the Modern Orthodox Realm

This week's issue of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia had an entire set of articles about Modern Orthodoxy and the various relevant issues that are at hand at this point in time in part of our ritualistically and religiously Halachic-driven community. One was about female students wearing tefilin at SAR, a second article about Partnership Minyanim (aside from a few errors in the article that will be apparent -- I stated that our Partnership Minyan was based on the model of Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem; and also indicated that the reason we do not have a physical Mechitzah is because of the absence of a Sefer Torah -- if we had Shabbat morning services there would be one), and the third on newer minted Orthodox Rabbis who do not necessarily agree with what is going on in these various changes and roles, but are advocating calmer and more respectful disagreements. I will take that and I certainly respect that!

Here are the links:

Clarification for this last article, though it is indicated as being available on line in January, it was included in this week's thematic inclusion of all of the above articles, with the outtake of "Pushing Boundaries"

I will tell you that this series of articles appearing as a unit was a long process. I had initially submitted an article regarding our Partnership Minyan this past August on what was actually our two year anniversary. The original article in its entirety appears below.

What I find so interesting about this is the shared understanding that SOMETHING is going on, and whether or not we agree with it, we should respect each other. Further, it is important to note that these are not brand new notions. As indicated in the article about SAR and girls wearing Tefillin, this goes back to Rashi's daughters hundreds of years ago. As for women reading Torah, the Gemara does in fact list all of those who can read Torah and does speak about giving preferential Kavod to those who are deserving, who by the way are the elder more learned members of the male participants in the congregation, with pleasant voices, if we want to be specific. The point is that we are all trying to pray, to live and to observe in the way that is most meaningful. What is wrong with that? What is not to be respectful about that? Halacha even tells us to be so on so many occasions!

I just thought you might be interested to see what is going on in this rather parochial region.


About thirteen years ago our eldest daughter was studying at MUSS High School in Hod HaSharon with her classmates from Akiba Hebrew Academy (now known as Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy). During our family Shabbat in Jerusalem that November, Yoella told us we just HAD to go to this new place called Shira Hadasha on Emek Refaim. “We would love it,” she insisted. And we did! It reminded me of all of the beauty and spirituality and religious presence I had felt growing up going to Shabbatonim in Seaboard USY (I come from one of the more religious and observant regions). It was reminiscent of the most beautiful Shabbatot we experienced as a family for many years at CAJE during its more than three decades of existence (different from NewCAJE but its parent, so to speak, nonetheless). Halacha was observed, minhagim (customs) that evolved into practices and standards studied intentionally and negotiated, and respect was shown towards all. The breath and breadth of the wonderful Jewish community was being truly celebrated, mechitza and all! This was precisely what I found at Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem and I have been going back ever since.

The idea of Partnership Minyanim is that Jewish law and practice are observed in terms of obligatory prayer elements while customs are revisited and reconsidered regarding the participation and leadership of women, taking a different approach to Kol Isha (hearing the voice of a woman) than much of our Orthodox community. This very discussion was presented in this newspaper last year in an article celebrating the one year anniversary of Lechu Neranena in Bala Cynwyd, a partnership minyan that meets monthly (Jewish Exponent, July 12, 2012).

This year, let us continue the celebration as we observe the second anniversary of both this group and its sister group on the other side of Montgomery County, Shira Hadasha of Elkins Park. This group meets monthly as well, in personal homes for dovening, a D’var Torah and dinner. It was founded and is coordinated by Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein.

Once a month we meet to sing and enjoy the beautiful spiritual uplifting experience that Kabbalat Shabbat can and should be, using so many tunes and niggunim from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach z’l. In line with the scholarly work and position of Rabbi Mendel Shapiro and response of Rabbi Daniel Sperber as brought to the general community in 2001, we have men lead Mincha and Ma’ariv, in line with the idea of obligatory prayer (chiyuv). Women lead Kabbalat Shabbat, a customary series of beautiful psalms and praises to bring us into the mindset where we can welcome Shabbat into our hearts and homes. All sing together with voices raised, creating harmonies that serve to transition us from the work week to the sanctity of Shabbat. Women also give Divrei Torah, also a custom and thereby not subject to the same obligatory contours of other aspects of Jewish prayer practices.

In short, the preservation of “Devarim SheB’Kedusha” those aspects in which a minyan is needed is juxtaposed with observing that we can take some liberties with aspects of the service that are customary. This is actually the position that was the governing force in the Halachically rooted Conservative Judaism in which I was schooled as a young child. It was also familiar to the Orthodox world to which I was exposed and in which I lived and studied as a child decades ago in Baltimore, Maryland.

I fully realize that this is not accepted in much, albeit the majority of the Orthodox community. I can respect and accept that; I just hope that the understanding of differences in use and interpretation of law that leads to our practices can be extended from our right wing Orthodox world as well. That being said, with the growth of Partnership Minyanim, the traction that is being gained by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and its programs, Yeshivat Maharat, and the growing voice of Modern/Open Orthodoxy in our world today, we should allow ourselves to agree to disagree and welcome this wonderful option that gives a voice and presence to so many who find it meaningful and a place for their Jewish souls. We are on the map officially and may we all continue to find soulful ways of coming together to pray to G-d and accept that there are many ways to do so.

For more information about Shira Hadasha of Elkins Park, contact Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein at

Shabbat Shalom to all! And may this truly be a Shabbat of peace, acceptance and understanding!