Archive for the 'Seen and Heard' Category

The Mitzvah of Studying Torah: Should Jews be Paid to Learn?

I wrote a post for the Beyond BT blog about programs that pay young Jews targeted as ripe for being brought into the mitzvah-observant fold and the study partners who help them.

The issue of paying men to study in kollel for years is another issue I’d like to address at some point, but one I feel a bit closer to and find is less often discussed is the issue of paying less-affiliated Jews in order to get them to do something Jewish.  Is this really the best way to get Jews authentically excited about Torah?

Read more at the Beyond BT Blog, “Should Jews be Paid to Study Torah?

What Gilad Shalit’s Release Means to Me

gilad shalit calls his parents after returning to IsraelThere is a great deal already written about the bittersweet end to the captivity of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, his media festival return to Israel, and the 1,027 prisoners, including convicted terrorists, released in exchange.

When I was in synagogue this past Shabbat and it came the time during the Torah reading for the gabbai to recite a prayer for the return of Israel’s captives, my heart lifted at the realization that Shalit’s name had at last been removed because he was safely returned to his family.

That feeling of joy and hope however is shadowed by a dull feeling of fear. I try not to be afraid, because then terrorists win, but my reason tells me that now that killers aiming to kill more Jews, and to kidnap more prisoners, we may lose more than one life in return.

The Jewish tradition values the sanctity of life. The Talmud teaches that “Whoever saves a single life, it is as if he had saved the whole world.” (Sanhedrin 4:5) We also believe that all of Israel are responsible for one another.

The mission is clear, but at what cost it is to be completed is the tricky bit.

God answered our prayer to return Shalit, even if we may be disappointed with how.

Terrorists are emboldened. The stabbing of a 17-year-old on Saturday occurred due to suspected “nationalist motives” according to the Jerusalem Post, though it would be called a hate crime if it occurred anywhere else. That’s what it was. And random acts of violence such as these cannot be prevented unless we stayed holed up in our houses.

Accompanied with the prayer for the return of the captives, many communities, including the kehillah with which I pray, include a prayer for the State of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces. For those who hate, I know nothing else than to pray for a change of heart. May God also hear our prayers for sage leaders who make the best decisions possible and for the safe return of all members of the armed forces to their families.

An Easy Fast?

I think it’s a bit silly to wish someone a “safe fast”, or a “tzom kal”, as is commonly the practice.  If it’s really easy, then what’s the point?  I hope that the fast is just the right kind of heartbreaking reminder of what we are mourning and remembering.

I think that the intention of “easy” comes from a place of not wanting a fellow to suffer and furthermore that they stay safe.  So, these days, I wish fellow fasters a “safe and meaningful fast”.  That’s really what I want for myself, anyways.

A friend of mine in California sent me a text today, “From Tehinnat ha-Nashim le-Vinyan ha-Mikdash- The Supplications of the Mothers for the Rebuilding of the Temple” by Dr. Yael Levine.  I’d never seen anything like it.

Levine, who holds a Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, explains in the introduction that she “composed the literary work in the style of aggadic midrashim, in which biblical and post-biblical female figures,  through the end of the Second Temple period, beseech God to rebuild the Temple.” The work is based on themes which appear in a variety of Jewish textual sources.

I enjoyed reading the excerpts but was not entirely sure what to make of them.  Despite the tremendous scholarship and creativity involved in composing this work, it still leaves women in the same place they’ve been through the ages – a place that is accessible only by reading between the lines of sacred text.

Throughout the ages, it’s been women who have kept the Jewish people together. From the birth of the Jewish people as slaves in Egypt, when the women kept their faith as the men were prepared to throw it away along with their male newborns according to Pharoah’s decree, to Queen Esther in Purim and Yael in Chanukah. At several critical moments in Jewish history, women maintained the Jewish integrity.  In our times, too, it its women who generally hold the religious character together for a family (see statistics cited in an earlier blog post), and perhaps as we recognize this, our leaders, male and female, will eventually steer us back on to the course of receiving the Third Temple.

*Note: I incorrectly initially posted that the article excerpts were from an upcoming book.  The piece was printed in Tehinnat ha-Nashim le-Vinyan ha-Mikdash, Eked: 1996.


What to Wear Over Hair

One of the aspects of Jewish religious observance that is not often a part of public discourse is women’s headcovering.  Sure, it’s a very personal thing.  That is why I hesitated to write about this.

My concern is that the rabbis feel the same way.

I don’t take this issue lightly and when I hear married women tell me how grateful they are for this “mitzvah” because they don’t have to spend time doing their hair in the morning I laugh.  That’s not the way I like to make decisions about my Jewish observance.  And see that photo on the right?  Hashem gave me a rosh paruah that looks like that in less than 2 minutes.

When I meet someone for the first time, I say “I’m tall with dark curly hair”.  Online, the thought that by wearing a hat or banadana I’ll look significantly different than my avatar photo is a lot more threatening to me than the thought that my legal name will no longer match @ilenerosenblum.

At various points over the last three years I’ve examined the sources in Jewish text used to substantiate the requirement that married women cover their hair.  The arguments, as I understand them, are as follows:

  1. A woman’s hair is ervah and so it should be covered.  There is a secular, rational basis for this – women’s hair is sexual, and if a woman is saving her sexual energy exclusively for her husband, it makes sense to keep it hidden from everyone else.
  2. In Berakhot 24a:
    R. Yitshak said: “An [uncovered] tefah(handbreadth) in a woman is
    erva.” Regarding what [did R. Yitshak say this]? If in regard to looking [at women], did not R. Sheshet say: “. . . Anyone who gazes even at a woman’s little finger, is as if he gazes at her private parts”? Rather, regarding his wife and reading the Shema.

  3. It shows that a woman is married and ergo unavailable to other men (having sex with a married woman carries a harsher punishment than if she is unmarried).
  4. The sotah, a woman who is accused of adultery, is brought before the Kohen and her head is uncovered as a source of embarassment and from this we learn that married women covered their hair and that removing it is embarassing.
  5. And the Kohen shall set the woman before God, and loosen the hair of the woman’s head, and put the offering of memorial in her hands, which is the meal offering of jealousy; and the Kohen shall have in his hand the bitter water that causes the curse. (Bamidbar/Numbers 5:18)

  6. Kabbalistic teachings that I have not studied explain that there is a certain powerful energy exuded by a woman’s hair, and that energy can become destructive it if it is not contained.  Therefore, it therefore must be covered. This energy is activated when a woman consummates marriage, so it doesn’t apply to unmarried women and it continues to apply to divorced or widowed women.
  7. Dat Yehudit – It’s how Jewish women dress.

My thoughts on these matters, respectively:

  1. If a woman’s hair is really ervah, then why shouldn’t unmarried women cover their hair?  If gazing at women at all is inappropriate, even a woman’s little finger, then why don’t we wear burkas?
  2. This argument really only works in Israel and in observant Jewish communities of the Diaspora.  Otherwise, if a woman is covering all of her hair with a bandana, to the public, including most Jews, it would signify one or more of the following.  That she is: a) hiking b) undergoing chemotherapy c) a hippie d) having a really bad hair day.  It would likely NOT indicate that she is married. Rather, a wedding ring seems to serve this purpose in modern Western culture.  Additionally, I don’t feel that wardrobe choices must be made by what will or will not suggest to a man the degree of punishment that illicit sexual relations would incur. Many women choose to cover their hair with a sheitel, a wig.  Some of them are pretty convincingly natural looking.  They are sometimes made with the wearer’s own hair and often look nicer than the original hair style.  The only difference is that it’s not actually attached to her head.  The justifications for this I’ve heard follow these 3 lines of argument:  a) What man wants to run his fingers through a wig?  b) A wig covers all of a woman’s hair and is therefore superior to a hat or wrap and a woman is less likely to remove it in public because of how odd that would look. c) The point is not to look unattractive and so it doesn’t matter if the woman looks more attractive wearing the sheitel.  The point is that it’s not actually attached to her head.   In some communities the sheitel is covered by a hat so that no one is mistaken.  That sounds delightfully sweltering in the Israeli summer, but the point is neither comfort nor fashion.

    I feel that a) I’m not sure this is a valid line of halachic reasoning and again, not something I’m going to base my wardrobe choices on. b) Most sources and contemporary practice indicate that it is not critical to cover all the hair. c) Um, I thought the point if anything was to send a message to guys to get the message that a woman is off limits? 

    I will take the time also here to mention that it is a practice in some ultra-Orthodox hasidic circles for women to shave off their real hair.  This stemmed from a fear that when she would immerse in the mikvah that some hair, if it was long, might accidentally float to the top or fall out and land on her body and thereby invalidate the dunk.  To this I will point out that halacha states that a woman should not make herself unattractive to her husband.  She shouldn’t even make herself deliberately unattractive to everyone else.  The line I hear about tzniut in general is “attractive, but not attracting”.  To this I will refer to point a – what man wants to run his fingers over his wife’s bald head?

  3. The sotah procedure isn’t in place anymore and I don’t feel so great about basing how I look on an observance stemming from the practice of handling women suspected of adultery.
  4. I don’t know.  I haven’t gotten into Kabbalah.  I have noticed however that Jewish law seems to completely omit the possibility that a woman might not be a virgin when she gets married for the first time.
  5. Rambam explains that Dat Yehudit varies from place to place.

    Hilkhot Ishut 24:12: What is Dat Yehudit? It is the modest behavior practiced by daughters of Israel. These are the things, that if she does [any] one of them, she has violated Dat Yehudit: She goes out to the market place or in an open passageway and her head is uncovered and she is not wearing a redid[shawl or chador] like all the women, even though her hair is covered with a kerchief.

    I see plenty of observant women who don’t cover their hair, particularly outside of Israel. I think there is a much stronger case to be made along this line of reasoning if one lives in a community in which this is the norm.

I’ve searched and searched, for textual sources, books, and blog entries.  And I’ve not come across anything that satisfies me completely in determining why a married woman should cover her hair.  And don’t even get me started on the debate over how much!

The best textual sources that I’ve found are books by Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin, Understanding Tzniut: Modern Controversies in the Jewish Community and Responsa on Contemporary Jewish Women’s Issues. Several people have recommended Hide and Seek: Jewish Women and Headcovering by Lynne Schreiber. I enjoyed reading the stories, but ultimately I closed the book with no answers and the introduction provided nothing new to me.

Most rabbis, it seems, want to stay far, far away from this topic.  That indicates something to me.  It’s not merely that it’s a personal issue.  By most standards, I believe, hilchot niddah are far more personal, and rabbis are more willing to make rulings in this area.  But kisui rosh, headcovering,  appears to have a lot more wiggle room and I’m led to believe less halachic substantiation.

Here is what Willow Smith has to say about the issue:

Where does this all leave me?  I don’t want to do it just because everyone else is doing it, but yet… it seems that group think is part of being a member of the tribe, or any tribe.

When making a decision about my Jewish observance, I usually go to one or more of the following places:

  1. The sources.  I find no clear answer here.
  2. My ancestors.  What would bubbe do?  My parents have a photo of my late great-great-grandparents back in the shtetl.  In it, my great-great-grandmother is wearing a shawl that exposes the front part of her head.  Was that the norm before married women started shucking the headcovering in droves?
  3. Community.  What do others do in my community today?  This is dicey because sometimes people are misled and don’t actually do the right thing.  Group think takes over.  I don’t believe in just following the group and also, the observant Jewish community in Jerusalem is so large that I don’t feel like I’m particularly a member of any group.  I haven’t found my niche.
  4. Ask a rabbi.  I haven’t asked a rabbi directly for a psak on what to do, but I don’t think I’d get one.  Previous conversations with rabbis on the subject have led me to believe that it’s one of the last things that they’d want to do.

I’ve taken the chance that some of what I’ve written above may be inaccurate or misunderstood.  I did my best to report accurately.  In the even that I’ve been mistaken, please leave a comment.

If you disagree, leave a comment.  If you agree, leave a comment.

I hope that this can be the start of an ongoing process and exploration and conversation.  If I offended anyone with my opinions, I would like to apologize.  I took that possibility into consideration but on the whole I thought that it was more important to lay thoughts and feelings out there than to be diplomatic and not dive into the heart of the matter or to shirk away from something difficult.  Sometimes it’s only when you remove diplomacy that the true discussion can begin.

Eim HaBanim Semeichah – You Too Can Fulfill the Vision

Well, as promised, I received an e-mail today with a flyer for Merkaz Mishneh Sachir, “The Institute for Learning, Teaching and Dayanus.”  There was no follow-up to our conversation asking for a donation – just a simple pdf attachment.

I realize that my tone was pretty harsh in my previous post.  While being assessed for my net worth and asked for money, in my own home nonetheless, is not a particularly warm and fuzzy feeling, I do have a deep respect for the fellow who showed up at my door.  He doesn’t look like the typical shaliach trying to get Jews to move to Israel (though I felt like pointing out that perhaps he should focus on recruiting folks who don’t yet have a Teudat Zehut number).  He also was pretty clear, without being pushy, about asking for what he wanted.  Too many people looking for donations are so pushy they make me run quickly in the other direction.

To be clear, this institute is advocating aliyah to the “Land of Israel” and makes no mention of the State.  I don’t know what their stance on the Israeli government or army service is.  Perhaps I’ll have a better sense after I actually read the book, but meanwhile, a Google search for “מרכז משנה שכיר” suspiciously returned no relevant hits.

The flyer doesn’t list a web address either.


If anyone knows, please leave a note in the comments section.  Otherwise, I’ll provide an update, bli neder, when I finish the book, Gd willing. (Wasn’t that a great frummy promise?)

Eim HaBanim Semeichah – Only in Jerusalem

Last week I saw a posting on the Nefesh B’Nefesh e-mail listserv that someone was giving away free copies of Eim HaBanim Semeichah (אם הבנים שמחה) by Rabbi Shlomo Teichtal.  The book makes the case for aliyah to Israel, from a Torah perspective.

The author, a Torah scholar who came from a line of great rabbis and Jewish leaders, shared the popular view among observant Jews in Hungary at the time that a return to Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, would come at the time of the Messiah.  But the horrors of the Holocaust, in which he ultimately perished, caused him and an entire establishment to reckon with the implications of a shattered world.

While hiding from the Nazis in Budapest, he penned this work in just over a year.  He explains its purpose in page 36 of the translated English edition:

“…if Mashiach still tarries even after the persecutions have ceased and HaShem has enhanced our status, then I accept upon myself a vow, like that of Ya’akov Avinu, to write a book dealing with the honor of Eretz Yisrael.  Its aim will be to seek out the virtues of Eretz Yisrael, to raise its pride and honor, they demonstrate to everyone our great obligation to build it, perfect it, establish it on high, and raise it out of the dust.  Through this work I will try to impress upon every Jew the importance of taking part in the rebuilding of our Holy land, for our entire redemption depends on this.  I intend to demonstrate that Eretz Yisrael, the “mother” of the Jewish nation,” longs and awaits expectantly for all of us, young and old alike, to turn our attention towards her, to establish her, and to raise her walls in glory.”

He goes on to explain that ever since the time of Ezra, when the ability to return to Israel has returned, Jews who lived comfortably in exile made all sorts of reasons not to hurry back, and they ultimately suffered for it.

Although I turn down few free books, I was particularly excited to see this title being given away for “free” because my friend cites it as the final push that made her move to Israel.  A Torah scholar herself, her eyes light up whenever the book is mentioned.   I received a phone call in response to my e-mail, and I was offered delivery right to my door.

I answered the doorbell in my bare feet, and standing just outside were two men with black hats, long beards, and suit jackets down to their knees.  The fellow who came up to the door and handed me the book asked a bit about my background, trying to be polite, but clearly assessing whether I had money, and clearly being careful not to look directly at me (while I was modestly dressed in a crew neck shirt with sleeves past my elbows, it had sequins and pinks and purples that would probably be considered scandalous in his community).

I was not prepared to meet a chasid at the door, but I expected to be asked for money.  There’s no free lunch (er, book) — not in any country.

I asked why he was giving away these books.  Was he part of an organization?  His grandmother was part of the Teichtel family, he explained.

But, “unrelated to the book” (of course) would I be willing to support a yeshiva student?

He seemed confused by the fact that I lived with a roommate and not with a family.  When I mentioned that I was getting married next month he had a perfect segue.  “You know, it’s an auspicious time to be making a donation.  You can sponsor a student learning Torah for a year.”

Just earlier this evening my fiancé and I were looking at appliances we will need for our new apartment.  It ain’t cheap.  And no, I don’t want to sponsor someone who chooses to study Torah instead of work for the year on top of all of my expenses as a newlywed.  The whole choosing to study rather than work thing is a whole other issue, so I tried to diplomatically dodge it all and asked him to please send me the information so that I could review it at my leisure, and not while he was waiting in my doorway as all the cold air blew in.

He agreed and also left me a form for Hora’at Kevah so that I can have a donation oh-so-conveniently withdrawn from my bank account on a monthly basis.  It can be a small amount, he says, like $50.  I wanted to point out that making aliyah means I get paid in shekels and that most Israeli salaries aren’t as large as those who don’t make them might think, but I just kept smiling.

The book, he explained, says that those who choose to work (I liked the word “choose”) should support those who study Torah in Israel.

I’m certainly not going to read all 525 pages tonight, but already in the introduction, Rabbi Teichtel brings strong textual proofs for moving to Israel, such as:

It is preferable to dwell in the deserts of Eretz Yisrael than the palaces of Chutz LaAretz (outside Israel)  (BeReishit Rabbah 39:8)

He who dwells in Eretz Yisrael is like one who has a God, and he who dwells outside of the Land is like one who does not have a God. (Ketuvot 110b)


A Jaffa grapefruit - the largest ruby red grapefruit I have ever seen.

If that wasn’t enough, one of the most important signs indicating the Messianic age is the ingathering of the Jews in exile. With the resettlement of Israel, there is also a tradition that the land will be cultivated at that time, based on Ezekiel’s prophecy (36:8): “But you mountains of Israel, you shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to my people of Israel for they are at hand to come.” The Talmud teaches that there is no better sign of the coming of the Messiah than when the Land of Israel will once again give its fruit (Sanhedrin 93a).

“May we see the fulfillment of a joyous mother of children [אם הבנים שמחה] (Psalms, Tehilim, 113:9) speedily in our days.  Amen.” (pg. 56)

I Can’t Believe Sam Harris Got a Standing Ovation

The the Torah I’ve been studying lately has consisted of Sefer HaMitzvot and TaHarat HaMishpachah, which translates to “family purity” laws, and what really means a set of laws and customs dating back to the time of the Torah which govern the relationship between husband and wife.  In order to get married in Israel, a woman needs to take at least a few classes from a certified instructor.  I won’t go into detail here because it’s off topic, I’m not fully versed in it, and no blog post could do justice to something so vast and personal, but let’s just say that it has a lot to do with a woman’s period.

There.  You didn’t want to keep reading more anyways, did you?

Realizing that my time in my apartment is winding down, I decided that my search for some different reading material should include my roommate’s bookshelf in our living room.  One of the most popularly lended books has been The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University by Kevin Roose.  The book chronicles the author’s then-sophomore Brown University semester “abroad” as a transfer student at the world’s largest evangelical Christian college founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

I can see why the book has made the rounds.  Here is why I liked it:

  • Fun, reader-friendly writing style broken up into many small chapters
  • I appreciate Kevin’s honesty and his ethical struggles as a journalist
  • I knew very little about evangelical Christians besides that short of accepting Jesus as my savior, the best thing I could be doing according to them is to be in Israel
  • It was interesting to read the work of a former intern of A.J. Jacobs of The Year of Living Biblically and other hilarious books.
  • I was particularly impressed that he completed the book while an undergraduate student
  • I could relate to the strict laws of the religious devotees

At Liberty, Roose quickly finds out, there are a lot of rules in place to keep the young Christian souls away from sin.  These include a curfew, a dress code, no kissing, no boozing, and certainly no pre-marital sex.

These rules seemed familiar to me, as they are similar to what one might encounter at some orthodox Jewish religious institutions, but at the religious institution – not a school for secular inquiry.  And then they are only similarities.

The differences, I feel, are important to make.  First of all, religious Jewish institutions are not co-ed.  For goodness sake, who really thinks that 18 to 20-somethings having regular physical contact with the opposite sex won’t result in some hanky panky?  Religious Jewish institutions usually have a dress code, but it’s one based on halacha, Jewish law, not the whims of the administration, as at Liberty.

You can be sure that regular prayer and Bible study can be found at both.

But enough compare and contrast and on to my encore, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, by Bart D. Ehrman.  At 246 pages, it was a small impulse buy when I was back at favorite D.C. Bookstore Kramerbooks during my last visit.  I’ve only just begun the volume, but the author, a former evangelical Christian, examines how original texts of the New Testament have disappeared and that existing texts available do not agree with one another and have been manipulated by human motives, sometimes centuries after they were to have been first written.

It is, so far, reminiscent of the section dealing with Christianity in The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, a book that comes highly-acclaimed by none other than The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, The Times of London, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.  I nonetheless liked it the least.

The Evolution of God explains how “God” has merely played a convenient social and political role throughout the evolution of societies.  He argues that human nature gave birth to religion — a God, or Gods, as conceptualized by religion, did not give birth to humans.

While I am not a Shamanic, Islamic, or Christian scholar (even after reading The Unlikely Disciple), I’d like to think that I know a thing or two about Judaism and its conception of God.  Wright was wrong on pretty much all accounts.  He lifts quotes from scripture out of context, mistranslates them and liberally uses ellipses.  Well, you’ve got a lot to work with when you do that!

It is clear from the writing that the author failed to consult a learned person from any of the religions he pulls into his evolutionary model of human thought and societal “progress,” and sure enough, an examination of the extensive footnotes proves this to be the case.  Wright heavily sources English translations(!) of the Bible and scriptures.  Other books are all academic works — nothing by religious scholars.  That means no Talmud.  Not only is the Hebrew of the Torah critical to attempting to analyze its meaning (all serious religious and secular scholars review it in Hebrew), eliminating the Oral Law of the Talmud is to present half the picture, and a skewed one at that.

What’s all this got to do with Sam Harris?  Well, on Thursday night I was frankly too lazy to read but still in search of something intellectually stimulating.  I went to, the website for a series of lectures on what basically could be summed up as “good ideas”.  The videos are segments from TEDx events held around the world.  I went to the “religion” tab and came across a lecture by Sam Harris titled “Science can answer moral questions“.  This the first time I got a glimpse of the man whose book The End of Faith I listened to in audio format while training for a marathon in 2008.  I thought he looks so Jewish.  A quick Google search confirmed that he is, in fact, halachically Jewish, born to a Jewish mother (his father is a Quaker).

Harris’ speech was similar to his book — when you pulled back all of the layers of academic posturing, it sounds nice, but it makes no sense!  I have no idea what he says in this video other than that if we try really hard, society, through science,  should eventually be able to figure out such difficult moral questions such as how to display the female body (Burqa = bad; nudie magazines = bad.  Where is the happy medium?).  While Harris, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA totally fails to show how science can help us make moral decisions, he makes it clear that religion sure can’t!

I frequently think that I don’t meet the material we cover in my marriage preparation classes with the level of enthusiasm that my teacher would like.  While at the end of the day, if you’re a believer, the law is the law, the truth is that there is beauty and sense in it; at the same time, it’s also gross and weird and sometimes offensive to my modern, Western sensibilities.

Having written all of this, I feel like I huge apikoris, but out of all that I’ve considered in this blog post, it’s the funky menstrual rules that make the most sense to me.


Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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