Guest Posts

Who Is A Ger?

R Michael Broyde / One of the wonderful aspects of American Orthodoxy is the presence of so many righteous converts – more than any other generation in recent memory — we are seeing in the United States. People are joining the Orthodox Jewish community out of love of God, Torah and mitzvot and are professing full and complete fidelity to halacha as part of the process of becoming Jewish. Of course, the thrust of the Torah and halacha is that we ought not make distinctions between converts and born Jews – but yet, there are occasions where Jewish law calls for special care and kindness to gerim and Jewish law restricts a female ger from marrying a preist (kohen). This short note discusses a small conceptual detail in this area of Jewish law by asking “who is the ger that Jewish law considers worthy of these special protections and occasional restrictions?” Is it only one who converts, or is it the children of a convert also? This note points out that, in fact, this is a matter in dispute.

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Idioms: Then and Now

Prof Shlomo Karni / Biblical and rabbinical literatures are rich in idioms, פְּנִינֵי לָשוֹן, which resonate uniquely in the language. Throughout the ages, some have preserved their original meaning; others got modified; yet others gave rise to new , often unexpected meanings, illustrating (again) the liveliness of our language. Let us consider a few: The ancient ruling "שוֹפֵךְ דַּם הָאָדָם בָּאָדָם דָּמוֹ יִשָּפֵךְ" "Whoever sheds the blood of man by man shall his blood be shed" (Gen. 9:6) with its elemental meaning and homophonic rhythm, established a principle of criminal justice, to this day.

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Where Are the Superstitions of Yesteryear?

R Eli Clark / What is the role of superstition in Orthodox Jewish practice today? This question struck me this week, when two different congregants asked the gabbai for the honor of opening the aron kodesh. Both have wives who are about to give birth. And both apparently subscribe to the notion that opening the aron kodesh will ease the labor of one’s spouse. To the best of my knowledge, this is a relatively recent custom; it is cited in Kaf Ha-Hayyim (134:12) in the name of the Hida, who lived in the 18th century. Yet, despite its explicitly Sephardic and implicitly Kabbalistic origin, the practice has spread to Ashkenazic circles. The question is: how many of those who follow this custom, like the two expectant fathers competing for petiha this past Monday, believe their wife’s labor is actually affected by the performance of a relatively insignificant ceremony in shul?

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Elegy for a Tree

R Barry Kornblau / The large tree in front of my house went down last night. The mighty winds of the great storm Sandy beat relentlessly upon it, bowing it ever further down until it finally came to rest on a neighbor’s lawn across the street. As I stood outside watching it collapse in slow-motion (our concrete sidewalk was pinning down its roots), my mind and heart were divided. Mostly, of course, they were with with the millions who had lost electricity, their homes, and their lives. At the same time, a personal sadness also overtook me and my eyes moistened with tears. The sadness wasn’t just because a few days ago, that tree had supported – as it has for many years – a pinata to delight my kids and their friends at a birthday party. Rather, for a long time now, I have always looked up to, and upon, trees as more majestic denizens of our planet than we humans. They beautify our world, live longer than we do, and are powerful and massive enough to uproot concrete sidewalks with their thirsty roots, and to destroy our cars, our houses, and even our lives with their massive branches. They dwarf us, shade us, and even outnumber us on our shared home, Earth, by roughly 60:1. We and trees even depend directly upon one another to live: we are sustained by inhaling the waste product they exhale (oxygen), and they are sustained by inhaling the waste product we exhale (carbon dioxide).

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Orientation During Prayer

R Michael Broyde / One of the more universally recognized aspects of Jewish prayer is that (at least in our part of the world) it is to be directed to the east, toward Israel. Ideally, synagogues should be designed and built to face Israel. Individuals praying alone are likewise encouraged to orient themselves eastward. We teach this to our children at a young age, and often display mizrach plaques denoting this special direction. Notwithstanding the commonness of this knowledge, one frequently sees that synagogues and study halls with regular prayer services do not, in fact, face either eastward or toward Israel; indeed, historically, one can find whole communities where not a single synagogue faced toward Israel.[1] The glaring disparity between Jewish teaching and practice raises fundamental questions: How strict is the requirement to face east during tefillah? Is this practice perhaps not even a requirement at all, but merely a hiddur, an enhancement? Might other ideals or requirements take precedence over the notion of facing east? And even if we do conclude that one should face Israel, what exactly does that entail when we recognize that the surface of the earth is not flat but spheroidal?

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Women and Judaism: Refocusing the Discussion

R Raphael Davidovich / Rabbi Michael Broyde’s recent article, in which he expresses mild disapproval of Simchas Torah women’s Torah reading, troubles me. I do not dispute the sources but believe that analysis misses the point. But I do not want this article to be about Rabbi Broyde’s particular piece because it is but one example, albeit impressive, of a larger phenomenon I have noticed over the past few years. Articles about the particulars falls into the category of missing the forest for the trees and ignoring a very significant and halachically dangerous movement. Many articles, impeccably researched, can be written on the following questions: May women receive synagogue honors, such as pesicha or gelila? Should women be discouraged from wearing taleisim? Is there is a way we can permit a double-ring wedding ceremony?

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The Case of the Disappearing ‘Nun’

Prof Shlomo Karni / Our starting point is Adam’s assertion (Gen. 2:23) “… לְזֹאת יִקָּרֵא אִשָּה כִּי מֵאִיש לֻקָחָה-זֹאת” which is problematic from the etymological point of view. We discuss briefly this point for the words אִיש, אִשָּה , and their relatives. Linguistic authorities [1], [2], [3] agree that there is no proven root relation between אִיש and אִשָּה. Here are the main points: The etymology of אִיש is uncertain, although several ancient languages have similar words: In Arabic we have ‘ins’ and ‘insan’, in Phoenician — ‘n‘sh’. Those are clearly related to the word אֱנוֹש; as a masculine, singular, indefinite noun it is a synonym to אִיש, unrelated to it, but related to its plural form אֲנָשִים. The plural אִישִים is rare (3 times in the Bible); in Modern Hebrew it means ‘personalities’, ‘VIPs’.

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Women’s Only Torah Reading

R Michael Broyde / Modern Orthodox synagogues, like others, actively seek the participation of both men and women in synagogue life. A “women’s only Torah reading” on Simchat Torah is an issue that has surfaced within this context; I write to address this issue and express my view. I should also note that the Young Israel of Toco Hills in Atlanta, Georgia, where I was the founding rabbi for 14 years (retired in 2008), and where I am currently a member had such a “women’s only Torah reading” (without any brachot), for the first time this Simchat Torah 5773.[1] I was not involved in the decision to have such a Torah reading, and do not favor such Torah readings. I write not to engage in a polemic or dispute regarding this particular synagogue’s decision – only the current rabbi decides matters of halacha for any synagogue and individuals with questions about this Torah reading should discuss any issues they have with him – but I write to clarify my view, lest anyone be confused about what is my opinion.

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Genesis and Human Stewardship of the Earth

R Yonatan Neril / The first two chapters of Genesis contain teachings with profound relevance for ourselves and our world today. In the first chapter of Genesis, twice in three verses, G-d speaks of humans ruling over other living beings. In the second instance, after creating Adam and Eve, G-d blesses them, saying “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” What does it mean for humans to subdue the earth and have dominion over other creatures?

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‘To Have’ and ‘Not to Have’

In a previous note[1], we discussed the Hebrew verb ‘to be’, with its unique properties and expressions. Similarly, the Hebrew verbs ‘to have’ and ‘not to have’ possess their own unique properties and expressions, with an affinity to ‘to be’ in the past and future tenses. The basic form of ‘to have’ is יֵש לְ... ‘there is to…’, with the appropriate pronominal suffixes or nouns. Similarly, ‘not to have’ is formed with אֵין לְ... ‘there is not to…’, and so יֵש לִי כֶּסֶף = ‘ I have money’; אֵין לִי כֶּסֶף = ‘I don’t have money’. הָיָה לִי כֶּסֶף= ‘I had money’; לֹא יִהְיֶה לִי כֶּסֶף= ’I will not have money’.

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