Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Leading From Behind

This week’s Torah reading sees Yaakov at the end of his life dispensing blessings to each of his sons. There is a comparable passage right at the end of the Torah, in which Moshe blesses the tribes soon before he dies. While these two poetic sections are quite similar, I want to focus on a difference:

A lion’s whelp is Yehudah… (BeReishit 49:9)

…Dan is a lion’s whelp… (Devarim 33:22)

Here the lion, as in other forms of literature, refers to the leader. While we would expect Yehudah, the ancestor of the kings of Israel, to be portrayed as a lion, why is Dan described in the same way?

Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen explains that there are two models of leadership, which he refers to as ‘head of the lion’ and ‘tail of the lion’. We might call them in modern parlance ‘leading from the front’ and ‘leading from behind’.

Yehudah’s role is to lead the Jewish people from the front, setting the spiritual pace for the nation that will follow his example. The Jewish king marches ahead of his people, constantly raising the standards of observance and morality demanded of the nation. This is an indispensable role, one that truly requires the bravery of a lion to implement.

Yet there is another, no less vital form of leadership: that of Dan, which is conducted ‘from behind’:

All of the count of the encampment of Dan came to 175,600 – they travelled last under their flag. (BeMidbar 2:31)

And the flag of the encampment of Dan travelled – those who gathered all the encampments… (ibid. 10:25)

The tribe of Dan travelled at the back of the Jewish people, gathering the stragglers and ensuring that no-one got left behind. As a result, although Dan could be described as a ‘minor’ tribe, he is accorded great status in Yaakov’s blessing:

Dan shall avenge his people like one of the [important] tribes of Israel. (BeReishit 49:16)

One may also explain that ‘like one’ means that he is compared with the unique tribe of Yehudah. (Rashi ad. loc. paraphrased)

Yehudah may strike out in front, beating the drum to which he hopes that the Jewish people will march. In both national and religious aspirations, he will, perforce, guide them to places that they don’t really want to go: his leadership must comprise a heady brew of idealism and obduracy to succeed in steering the Jewish people towards their destiny. Yet for all his management skills, there is a danger that Yehudah will glance over his shoulder and realise that the people are struggling to keep up with him; worse still, they may not be following him at all. This is where Dan appears to complement the role of the leader: he nurtures, cajoles, even carries the slackers back into the camp and helps them to follow Yehudah. And while out at the front, Yehudah may not even notice the varied needs of the nation in his charge, Dan, who lives among the people, is capable of appreciating their diverse spiritual requirements and devising appropriate means for every member of the community to take his or her rightful place behind the king. This role requires just as much bravery as that of Yehudah, for the Dan’s job is often difficult to implement and deeply counter-cultural in a world that expects identically high standards from everyone. Dan, too, is a lion.

Our communities are blessed with many Yehudah-style leaders: tremendous sages, tzadikim, and outstanding role models of inspirational religious life. The Jewish world would, quite literally, cease to function without them. Yet, at least in some places, this appears to be not quite enough: for the people are in danger of falling behind the aspirations of the leaders. Sometimes the demands made by the leadership (whether it be in life-goals, stringent application of halachah, or other areas of Jewish life), cannot be met by every member of the community; this may lead to disappointment, religious burn-out and a sense of disenfranchisement. Perhaps the Jewish world would profit from a few more ‘Dans’ to gather the strugglers and bring them home: to make them feel loved in a world whose aspirations they find hard to meet and to show them a range of ways of living a meaningful and rich Jewish life with confidence and pride. In fact, at certain times in our lives, all of us may experience the type of disillusionment that the ‘Yehudahs’ can’t quite understand: at those moments, we all need the intervention of a ‘Dan’ to keep us within the fold.

Finally, we are told in an obscure Midrash (quoted in Torah Sheleimah), that the ultimate form of Jewish leadership must combine the attributes of Yehudah with those of Dan:

Mashiach hails from two tribes: his father is from Yehudah and his mother is from Dan. This is why Yehudah and Dan are both called ‘a lion’s whelp’, for the Mashiach will emerge from both of them.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Monday, December 17, 2007

How The Torah Can Take On The internet

Technology has always been seen as a challenge to religious societies and their mores. I recall a discussion with a visitor to my home: the topic of conversation was a man in full Hassidic garb he had seen standing in the street speaking on a mobile phone. What I thought was an interesting synthesis of old and new worlds my guest considered hypocritical for reasons he clearly felt deeply, but was unable to articulate. And a famous London rabbi who resisted the use of video cameras at weddings was once criticised in this very paper for being ‘an enemy of modern technology’! There seems to be a perception that technology and Orthodoxy don’t quite mix!

Recently, computers - and particularly the internet - have thrown up a range of issues that Jewish scholars have started to tackle. The most hotly contested of these is how to ensure that the internet is used safely. The plethora of pornography, nefarious chat-rooms, violence and hate that pervades the sinister side of the web has caused immense consternation in all civilised parts of society; it has encouraged Orthodox leaders to offer strongly-worded edicts to control its use. In many Haredi circles today, use of the internet for essential business use is reluctantly permitted, whereas home use is disallowed; there are residential areas in Israel where few homes have internet access. The exponents of this view feel that the dangers of internet use far outweigh its benefits, and that a ‘kosher’ home should, if at all possible, be web-free. This opinion is reinforced with powerful rhetoric and some quite draconian measures: a number of communities have even incorporated harsh internet restrictions into their school-entrance policies.

Yet leaders of other Orthodox circles have adopted a different view: they realise that the internet is a supremely useful tool that many find indispensable, and that banning it is unlikely to actually stop people from using it. An increasingly common perspective sees the internet as the greatest opportunity for knowledge-dissemination since Gutenberg, one that the religious world should embrace, while simultaneously taking robust precautions to avoid exposure to its disreputable and nauseating parts. This view is tacitly endorsed by the proliferation of Torah websites and other Orthodox internet resources.

But while the internet has occupied centre stage in recent rabbinical pronouncements, many other fascinating issues are raised by computer use. Over the coming months, in a series of occasional articles, I intend to address some of them. Among other topics, we will consider how Jewish law deals with modern intellectual property matters, Shabbat complications generated by internet use and some surprising consequences emerging from the growth in the availability of wifi.

The application of ancient Jewish sources to a modern issue is always an exciting opportunity for Torah scholarship, but the almost paradoxical meeting of the worlds of halakhah and state-of-the-art technology is especially fascinating. I never cease to be awed by the comprehensive nature of Talmudic and mediaeval sources: the corpus of Jewish legal literature contains a vast range of precedents from which any contemporary case can be decided, no matter how extraordinary. Of course, this process has existed since the earliest times and the current issues raised by computers are the successors of topics like protecting copyright, which was addressed many centuries ago by such luminaries as Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (16th century Poland). In due course, our subjects will give way to the next generation of conundrums; we can’t predict what they will be, but we can be sure that the halakhah contains the tools with which to handle them.

I believe that halakhah can deliver cogent and relevant answers to apparently unprecedented hi-tech problems and that this is one of Judaism’s greatest strengths. The answers emerging from halakhic debate often seem to presage the conclusions that other systems of thought eventually reach by longer and slower means.

The little-understood willingness of rabbis, even of those of the most insular schools, to engage directly with every aspect of modernity is, potentially one of the greatest assets of the contemporary Jewish world, one that we should export to the rest of society. Torah scholars are absolutely dedicated to incorporating the very best achievements of the 21st century into Jewish life. Yet they are equally committed to taking vigorous precautions to ensure that negative aspects of technology (both the halakhically questionable and the spiritually damaging) are firmly excluded from Jewish society. I hope that this series affords a small taste of this tremendous resource.


Internet access in the home is only permissible if required for a person’s job. Computers without internet access will be required to have software installed which will prevent such access in order to prevent children from connecting them to the internet. Children of families that do not comply with the rules will be barred from school in order to protect the other children in the class. (Excerpts from internet ban of Lakewood, NJ)

A computer is not a toy. It is a tool, like an electric saw. A blanket ban on home computers is as foolish as a blanket ban on electric saws. But it is just as foolish to leave an electric saw plugged in, out in your living room where there are children. Education is all about teaching our children how to use life’s tools. (Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen)

See, a blog devoted to discussing the future of Orthodox internet use.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Un-hijacking Hanukah (Hanukah 5768)

Many of us will have come across presentations of Hanukah that portray it as the anniversary of the ultimate victory of Jewish history – that of Judaism over the secular culture of the time. In this depiction, a pure, unadulterated Judaism, untainted by any non-Jewish influence, prevailed over an engagement with the surrounding society, its aspirations and intellectual activity.

This portrayal may be at odds with a number of ancient Jewish sources. In an allegorical reading of the laws governing the parah adumah (red cow, the ashes of which were used for spiritual purification), the holy Zohar learns:

'Unblemished’ – this refers to the Greek kingdom, for they are close to the path of truth. (Zohar HaKadosh 2:237a)

In the same vein (although in reality, this has no modern application), one may write certain holy texts in Greek as the sole alternative to Hebrew. The Sages find a source for this ruling in the post-diluvian blessings given by Noah to his sons: Shem, the progenitor of the Jewish people and Yefet, the ancestor of Greece. The usual translation of the verse is:

God shall give beauty (usual translation is ‘broaden’) to Yefet, yet He shall reside in the tents of Shem… (BeReishit 9:27)

The Talmud radically rereads the verse:

God shall give beauty to Yefet, and it shall reside in the tents of Shem – the interests of Yefet shall reside in the tents of Shem. (Megillah 9b)

These sources may indicate that far from rejecting Greek thought and culture, there is a view that incorporates them into the Jewish world. The Greeks developed the aesthetic aspects of life, such as music, art, literature, mathematics, and certain types of philosophy. This is the ‘beauty of Yefet’, which the Talmud encourages us not to revile, but to place firmly within the ‘tents of Shem’.

Yet while we Jews may subscribe to the coexistence of the physical and spiritual worlds, many Torah sources attribute to the Greeks an unwillingness to admit any connection between this world and the next. They may have believed in a higher reality, but considered it to have no impact on human lives. As such, the Torah could be revered as a classic of world literature, but not as the Divine guide to purposeful existence; it could take its place in a library alongside the works of Aristotle, but could never be considered a tool for human elevation.

In this light, we may recast the distinction between Jewish and Greek ideologies and hence the true nature of the victory of Hanukah. Having uncoupled the physical and spiritual worlds, the Greeks saw literature, philosophy, music, etc., as autonomous pursuits, rather than ways of experiencing spirituality within the physical world. In contrast, Jewish life encourages these endeavours only when they are a means to touch the Divine, but never as ends in themselves. The beauty of Yefet can and must live only within the tents of Shem.

The difference between our world view and that of the Greeks may seem slight, but it lies in understanding the very purpose of all cultural and other ‘secular’ pursuits. The victory of Hanukah – one of means over ends – is one that changed the face of the world.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Yippee: a Journey to Jewish Mazursky

‘Yippee: a Journey to Jewish Joy’ premiered at a special showing in London last week

At the end of the film, the middle-aged Jewish woman sitting a few seats away turned to me and asked, ‘What did you think of it, then?’ When I suggested that I needed a while to digest my experience (code for: I don’t want to tell you), she launched into her disapproval of the Breslovers (‘They’re nothing like any Hassidim I’ve ever come across’), the fact that there was filming on Rosh HaShanah (untrue: the cameras stopped at sunset and resumed after Yom Tov, although there did seem to be footage from the previous Shabbos), and, finally, of me, for failing to express an opinion of the film (I would have thought that someone like you – i.e. bearded – would know much more about it). Going to see Yippee: a Journey to Jewish Joy’, was, like the film itself, an extremely Jewish experience!

The film, a trailer for which can be viewed here, records the participation of Hollywood director Paul Mazursky in the Rosh HaShanah 2005 pilgrimage of Breslover Hassidim and ‘fellow-travellers’ to the grave-site of Rebbe Nahman (founder of the Breslov movement) in the Ukrainian town of Uman. Rebbe Nahman encouraged his followers to celebrate Rosh HaShanah at his burial place and in the post-Communist era, this has grown to attract tens of thousands of pilgrims. Mazursky, who describes himself as a secular Jew, was encouraged to make the trip by David Miretsky, his orthodox optometrist in LA, himself a regular visitor to Uman.

The film is light on detail about Breslov: one gleans little sense of the radical nature of Rebbe Nahman’s teachings or what distinguishes Breslov from other Hassidic groups. Yet it highlights one area (mentioned in the film’s subtitle – ‘a journey to Jewish joy’) for which Hassidey Breslov are famed: ecstatic joyfulness at all times. The teachings of Rebbe Nahman are replete with this theme; the lifestyle, aspirations and music of the Hassidim express it in practice. It is this constant happiness that intrigued Mazursky and motivated him to explore a world so distant from that of his comfort zone in Beverley Hills.

There is a nice balance between footage of Uman and clips of Mazursky himself at home in Hollywood, post-Uman, neatly groomed, hair dyed (he is much greyer in the film and had a goatee beard and his arm in a cast following a fall), commenting on the experience and how it had affected him. There are also some clever contrasting scenes: en route to Uman via Kiev, Mazursky’s group had a lay-over in Munich, during which they managed to squeeze in a visit to the Oktoberfest. Beer-drinking and mixed dancing contrasted well with the later scenes of all-male ecstatic Hassidic prayer and dancing. Later in the film, we are treated to a glimpse of the rather normal-looking traders of gentile Uman (just down the road from 25,000 bouncing Breslovers), and hear their views on the annual Hassidic invasion.

However, most of this could be described as light entertainment: the film scarcely scratches the surface of the powerful spiritual nature of Rosh HaShanah in Uman. Apart from a few glimpses of religious yearning, mostly contributed by David Miretsky, we are shown what seems to be a very happy, somewhat shallow and more-than-slightly mad group of people. The profound nature of what is, by all accounts, a life-changing experience, is largely absent. While this may be due in part to the lack of filming on Rosh HaShanah (something that wasn’t mentioned in the film), there was still a (deliberate?) failure to explore the real depth of the experience.

Despite this, I liked the film not so much as an accurate portrayal of Breslov and the Uman-pilgrimage (which it is not), but for the insight it offers into the emotional life of the director himself. Mazursky is rich, famous, hysterically funny and well-liked, yet he is searching for something ‘bigger’. While he never mentions it explicitly, his words and face speak volumes about the emptiness that permeates his life. He admits that while visiting Uman did not make him religious, it touched his heart and that he had become more respectful towards the observant. More than anything, Yippee is a diary of Mazursky’s struggle to find deeper meaning within an outwardly fabulously successful life that seems hollow on the inside. In that respect, if in no other, it is touching and fascinating.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Week In Jerusalem

My wife and I have just spent a magnificent week in Jerusalem. It was, as always, spiritually uplifting to visit the Old City, daven at the Kotel, absorb the incredible atmosphere of the eternal locus of Jewish physical and spiritual life, all the while sampling a degree of religious intensity that one can easily forget exists.

This time, we were also inspired by the growth of the new city: it was tremendous to see the huge number of building projects, the expansion of residential areas, the streets filled with young people. We were overwhelmed with a sense that without any question, the Jewish future lies in Israel, not elsewhere.

And, we have decided that Israel is the best place in the world for kosher restaurants. While we assiduously avoided mehadrin buses, we had the pleasure of dining at some really great mehadrin restaurants. They offer superb cuisine from across the globe at reasonable prices and despite what everyone says about Israelis, excellent service. (See below for a list.)

With all this to recommend, my wife and I asked ourselves several times during our trip: why exactly do we still live in the UK?

Gong – 33 Rehov Yaffa (Japanese)
Keyara – 8 Rehov Ramban (Bistro)
Yoja – 25 Rehov Emek Refaim (Pan-Asian)
Café Rimon – 4 Rehov Luntz, off Ben Yehudah (Grill or milky café)
Darna – 3 Rehov Horkanus (Moroccan)
Angelo – 9 Rehov Horkanus (Italian)

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Thursday, October 18, 2007

More About The Graves In Sochaczew


Many of you have expressed considerable interest about my interest in Sochaczew (see previous blog here) and my recent visit to the cemetery there. This week, I discovered a fascinating footnote in a sefer called ‘Mareh HaDeshe’, which talks about the rediscovery of the gravesite a number of years ago. Mareh HaDeshe is a biographical work about the two Rebbes of Sochaczew, written by the son of the Shem MiShmuel, who only died in 2000. The book is little known and hard to find (I would never have discovered it had I not overheard someone talking about it on a bus in Israel a couple of years ago. Even then, I couldn’t get it in Israel or in Europe; eventually, a friend found a copy in a sefarim warehouse in New Jersey). It’s a shame that I didn’t discover the footnote before I travelled to Sochaczew, but it’s in the section of the book dealing with the Avney Nezer, which I haven’t yet read. Here is the text in translation (mine):

From Mareh HaDeshe; Rabbi Aharon Yisroel Bornstein, Jerusalem, 5764, privately published

In reference to the burial of the Avney Nezer (Rabbi Avraham Bornstein) in 1910, Rabbi Aharon Yisroel Bornstein writes (Mareh HaDeshe pg 201):

(Main text) They selected an empty area as a burial place opposite the gate (of the cemetery in Sochaczew). This place was chosen deliberately, in order to leave an empty space of four cubits on all sides, so that it would be immediately evident on entering the cemetery.

(Footnote 17) In the records of the Hevra Kaddisha, they wrote that no-one should be buried within four cubits of his grave. They built an ohel (small shrine) around it. Until the ohel was constructed, watches of Hassidim sat there on guard all the time.

Thanks to the unusually distinct place, after many years, they were successful in revealing the gravesite, following the Second World War, when the enemy had destroyed the Jewish cemetery and demolished the ohel, leaving no sign or memorial; they even poured earth over it and levelled the land.

During the Second World War, the Nazis and their assistants (may their names be erased) destroyed the Jewish cemetery and demolished the ohel, leaving behind no trace. They even set up tents and clubs for the troops in the area. In order to do this, they levelled the land and poured earth and building rubble on to it. And what the Nazis (may their names be erased) failed to do, local evil people completed: they cleared the area completely, and turned part of it into a football field for the pupils of a school built nearby; they even used it as a pasture ground for animals. Furthermore, they demolished the wall that surrounded the cemetery.

In later years, after Israel’s association with the Polish state thawed from frozen, Jews returned to visit Poland, as well as the remnants that were left from the Jews there. They saw the ruins and the awful destruction, and the idea arose to return and to re-establish and fence in the cemetery.

Planned by many Sochaczew Hassidim in Eretz Yisroel and in America, headed by a man of dear spirit, one of the well-wishers, our friend, the rabbi and hasid Rabbi Yehudah Vidavsky, and on behalf of the council of immigrants from Sochaczew to Eretz Yisroel, they pursued protracted negotiations with the local authorities to return the area of the cemetery to Jewish control. They removed the structures that the bad neighbours had erected around it and which encroached on its space. Through the generosity of well-wishers, in place of the old wall the area of the cemetery was surrounded with an iron fence and they locked the gate. However, they could not locate the place where the ohel had stood. They had the collected testimony of elderly gentiles, but each of them pointed to a different place. Even the aerial photographs taken by the Allies during the war were unsuccessful in revealing the place, because the tents that had been erected in the area concealed everything.

But Rabbi Yehudah Vidavsky did not give up nor rest, and with the help of men who remembered the place (among them the author of these lines), identified a place as a possible location, and began exploratory excavations – perhaps we would be successful in uncovering some remnants. We had before us two indictors as to the correct positioning: 1) the graves of our rabbis would be found in a place where the surrounding area is devoid of other graves, because they agreed and decided at the time (of the death of the Avney Nezer) not to bury another body within four cubits of him. 2) There would be two graves next to each other, as the Shem MiShmuel was buried later within the ohel adjacent to the grave of his father. Strengthened by the tireless Rabbi Yehudah, who was conducting the excavations almost with his bare hands, they were successful, with the help of God, to uncover planks that had been placed in the grave. They began to dig with great alacrity along the length of a plank and uncovered the whole area of the grave. When they continued leftwards, the place where the Shem MiShmuel’s grave should be found, they uncovered the whole area of the adjacent grave. In accordance with the two aforementioned indicators, they fixed the place of the ohel exactly.

One who starts a Mitzvah also merits completing it: with his active assistance and with the partnership of well-wishers in Eretz Yisroel and in the Diaspora, we built a new ohel, corresponding to the ohel that had been demolished. We fixed it as a place of prayer, seclusion and prostration upon the graves of the righteous, our rabbis from the House of Sochaczew, may their merit stand for us. May the merit of those who acted and those who helped them stand for all eternity.

The War Of The Kings (Lech Lecha 5768)

Avraham became involved in a war between the powers of his time because of the capture of his nephew Lot. We learn:

They took Lot, the son of Avraham’s brother, and his property and they went. He was living in Sedom. (BeReishit 14:12)

Avraham felt a need to attempt to rescue his hapless nephew, putting himself at enormous risk to do so. The Maharal has no doubts as to the warriors’ true intentions - ‘for these four kings who took Lot, their objective was really Avraham.’ The capture of Lot was a bait to attract their true enemy – Avraham. Why were the four rulers interested in an elderly nomadic monotheist, who kept himself to himself? The Maharal suggests taht this was the first religious war in history, a concerted attempt to wipe the One God and Avraham, His chosen ambassador, from the face of the earth. The new spiritual order and focus that Avraham had introduced caused a major threat to the establishment of the time – one founded on pagan principles, selfish pursuits and little grasp of the sanctity of human life. Avraham sought to subvert all this through monotheism, moral responsibility and the rights and duties of Man. He posed no physical threat to the rulers of his world, yet he challenged the very basis of their values in the most profound way.

This was the true motive for the war – to eliminate Avraham and his new ideas before he became too successful. This is the deeper reason that there were four kings aligned against Avraham, as the number four represents the pull of the physical forces in all directions away from the centre. If we picture Avraham as the one man of God, the ambassador of the One God, then we can envisage the destructive, anti-spiritual forces attempting to undermine his achievements by attacking him on all sides. That the one (Avraham) faced the four kings indicates that the ravages of negativity and un-holiness threatened true spirituality.

Apart the self-sacrifice that Avraham exhibited by saving his nephew, the aftermath of the war has much to teach:

The king of Sedom said to Avram, ‘give me the people and take the wealth for yourself.’ Avraham said to the king of Sedom, ‘I have lifted my hand towards the Lord, the supernal God, ruler of heaven and earth. From a thread to a shoe-strap, nor shall I take from anything that is yours; you shall not say, ‘I have made Avram rich. (BeReishit 14:22-23)

Avraham decided not to take the spoils of war – after all, his motivation for involvement was not personal aggrandisement, but saving his nephew. However, Chazal find a much deeper meaning in these verses. Ravo notes that in the merit of Avraham’s reference to a thread and a shoe-strap, his descendents merited two Mitzvot – the thread of t’chelet / sky-blue that adorns the tzitzit and the strap of tefillin. (See Sotah 17a) The Midrash, which finds references to further Mitzvot in Avraham’s declaration. The thread is seen to refer to tzitzit, the Mishkan, which was decorated with threads of sky-blue and purple, or even the offerings that were brought on an altar whose upper and lower parts were divided with a red thread. Apparently, the shoe-strap makes an oblique reference to the strap of the shoe used in the chalitzah ceremony, the tachash skins that formed a protective covering over the Mishkan or the footsteps of the pilgrims attending the Temple on the shalosh regalim.

The Maharal (Sotah ad. loc.) comes to our aid again. It is axiomatic to Jewish thought that since God is perfect and infinite, we can give Him nothing; rather He gives to us in a unilateral fashion, while He takes nothing from this world. Further, emulating the Divine characteristics is considered to be one of the greatest possible achievements of Man. As the Rabbis put it – just as He clothes the naked, visits the sick and comforts the bereaved, so should we. (Sotah 14a) Imitatio dei, the imperative to become Godlike, underlies much of Jewish life. It follows then that Avraham’s refusal to take something rightfully his was demonstrative of his capacity to realise a Godly life within the physical world. According to the strict law, the spoils of war were his for the taking – they were considered ownerless and therefore available to him. It is even possible that he could have used his material gain for holy purposes, yet he chose to abstain. The law of tzitzit is, in the words of the Maharal, ‘complete connection to God through a Mitzvah.’ The tzitzit represent the notion that through a simple physical object it is possible to connect to God in the most profound way. Both tzitzit and tefillin are made from the simplest materials: wool and leather and, as such, are the reward for Avraham’s refusal to benefit from even the most basic items of the spoil – threads and shoe-straps. They show us the refinement of true Jewish spirituality, in which even the most mundane article hints to a wealth of subtle thoughts and ideas.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A Visit To Sochaczew

Last week, I fulfilled a long-held desire – to visit the ruins of the Jewish cemetery in Sochaczew, a town some 40 miles west of Warsaw. With a Jewish population of over 3000 prior to its destruction by the Nazis during the Holocaust, Sochaczew was known as a centre of Hassidic thought in the 19th and early 20th centuries (as well as being very close to the birth-place of the composer Frederic Chopin).

The Rebbes of Sochaczew were world-renowned thinkers: the first was the son-in-law of the Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Bornstein (d. 1910), known as the ‘Avney Nezer’ after his monumental collection of halachic responsa; he was succeeded by his son, Rabbi Shmuel (d. 1926), known as the ‘Shem MiShmuel’ after his nine-volume collection of discourses on the Torah and festivals. Representing a rare blend of intellectual, psychological, esoteric and inspirational material, the Shem MiShmuel rigorously analyses Midrashic sources, which are used to offer a creative approach to understanding Biblical narratives.

Around fifteen years ago, I was introduced to the writings of the Shem MiShmuel by a friend in Gateshead, and I have been a devotee ever since: his ideas have heavily influenced my own thoughts. My younger son is named for him, and as I am about to embark on a major research project into his writings, it was a privilege to be able to visit Sochaczew to daven at his grave and that of his illustrious father.

On my first visit to Poland some years ago, it struck me that the Holocaust happened very close to the UK – it took just two hours by plane to get to Warsaw from my home on London. This visit brought home again how easily the Nazis might have been more successful in their attempts to invade England, in which case my grandparents could have been victims of the Nazi’s death camps. Yet for reasons we can never know, it was European, rather than British Jewry who fell victim to the horrors of the bestial murder-machine.

My travelling companion and I found the visit to Sochaczew powerful and intense, yet it was outwardly unremarkable. There was no crying, no grand gestures, no throngs of people and nothing even slightly remarkable to look at. The cemetery was destroyed by the Nazis, but since then, a memorial wall to the murdered Jews of the locale and a memorial made from fragments of desecrated tombstones have been erected. The graves of the Rebbes have recently been restored, and an ohel (small building) constructed over them. We were only in Sochaczew for an hour, during which time we said some Tehillim, prayed for various people and davened Minchah. But the most powerful part of the experience was learning two short essays from the Shem MiShmuel, standing close to his grave: it was a truly memorable moment, one that I hope to repeat quite soon. There is something indescribable about standing in a small building in the middle of a field in a hick-town in the Polish countryside next to the grave of a man who made a real contribution to Jewish thought, while studying his very words. Therein lays the beauty of great ideas: they are eternal. The Nazis may have deported and murdered the Jews of Sochaczew and even attempted to erase every trace of Jewish habitation there by destroying the cemetery, but the ideas of the Shem MiShmuel exist for ever in the thoughts of his spiritual inheritors.

For photographs of my trip, please look here.

For more information about the destroyed Jewish community of Sochaczew, please look here.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Monday, October 01, 2007

Our Lives In Our Hands On Sukkot (Sukkot 5768)

A little-known rabbinical source explores the relationship between Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot:

Said Rebbi El’azar ben Meriom: why do we make a sukkah after Yom Kippur? To teach that since on Rosh HaShanah, God sits in judgement upon everyone alive and on Yom Kippur, He seals the judgement, it is possible that the Jewish people are deserving of exile. As such, they make the sukkah and exile themselves from their homes to the sukkah and God considers it as though they have been exiled to Babylon…. (Pesikta DeRav Kehana 2:7)

This thought is expressed in a prayer that some people say when entering the Sukkah:

And in the merit of my exit from my house to go outside…. may it be considered as though I had been sent far away as a wanderer….

It is hard to conceive of the modern sukkah as a form of banishment. Many sukkot are comfortable, even luxurious, close to the house, and, in some cases, inside the house. Even writing this from my sukkah in cold, wet England, with light drizzle settling on my computer screen, hardly seems like an exilic experience!

Perhaps this concept can be given a modern interpretation. We are all familiar with the need to get out of our regular environment from time to time: it is valuable to examine one’s conduct, schedule, perhaps even one’s whole life, from an outside vantage point, rather than from within it. Sometimes, one can only commit to life-changes, review one’s aspirations, and, in the words of a friend, ‘rediscover one’s own voice’ away from the demands and expectations of others and the pressures of normal existence.

After the spiritual exertions of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we may be exhilarated, but exhausted physically and emotionally. Also, the commitments we have made to live better and more fulfilled Jewish lives may be sincere, but they are also fragile. It would be easy to simply slip back into our previous behaviour pattern, with little to show from Yom Kippur. The sukkah provides a welcome ‘break’ from one’s regular environment, enabling one to recover from the Yamim Norayim and consolidate and internalise one’s spiritual achievements. The sukkah allows us the space to scrutinise our lives from the outside inwards, consider our own deficiencies at a dispassionate distance and strengthen our resolve to rectify them. This may be just the sort of ‘exile’ we need straight after Yom Kippur.

Allow me to extend this thought to the lulav and etrog. Every rabbi has quoted the following Midrash when short of a sermon for Sukkot:

Rebbi Moni opened his exposition (of the lulav and etrog): all my limbs shall say, ‘God, who is like You?’ (Tehillim 35:10). This verse was only said in reference to the lulav [bundle]. The spine of the lulav resembles the spine of a person; the hadas (myrtle) resembles the eye; the arovoh (willow) resembles the mouth; the etrog resembles the heart. [King] David said: these are the most significant organs of the body, for they encapsulate the entire person. (VaYikra Rabbah 30:14)

When one takes the lulav and etrog, one is holding oneself in one’s hands, enjoying a rare chance to look at oneself from the outside. One can decide in which direction to point oneself in the year ahead and actually ‘take one’s life in one’s hands’ and start the process.

My wife suggested that this makes the pre-Sukkot careful selection of the lulav and etrog easier to understand: each item is carefully examined to ensure that it meets exacting standards of freshness, completeness and beauty. That examination is the opening salvo of a process of careful self-scrutiny from afar, the blessing of Sukkot.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Avinu Malkenu Paradox (Yom Kippur 5768)

Since Rosh HaShanah, we have said the beautiful prayer Avinu Malkenu – our Father, our King – numerous times. Painfully aware of our inadequacies, we approach God, our benevolent father and ruler, and beg Him to bless us in every possible material and spiritual way. Its first and last lines read:

Our Father, our King, we have sinned before You….

Our Father, Our King, show us grace and answer us, for we have no [good] deeds. Perform acts of benevolence and kindness for us and save us.

The text is familiar, yet the opening phrase of each line expresses a surprising reality about our perception of God, touching on what is sometimes called the ‘immanence-transcendence paradox’. It is axiomatic that God is distinct from everything in creation, perfect and unbounded in every way – as the ruler of the universe, He transcends it. Yet we also perceive Him as our Father, concerned and intimately involved with the affairs of each of us, our constant support and rock. Struggling with this contradiction is a feature of any meaningful religious life.

In the Avinu Malkenu prayer, the paradox is simply stated: it is acknowledged in every line, but not resolved. When we stand before God we ask Him for life, health, success and redemption as though He were our father, yet simultaneously we recoil in awe, overwhelmed to stand in the presence of transcendent, wholly other-worldly, power. We sense that we may have to live with the paradox and not let it overly trouble us.

That is until the Ne’ilah, (closing) service of Yom Kippur. Just before finishing ten arduous days of prayer and introspection, we again say Avinu Malkenu, but append a short affirmation, said only on this occasion and by a person close to death. The key line of this declaration is borrowed from I Melakhim 18:39:

Adonay hu HaElohim.

Translated roughly into English, this equates to saying that God is God, which seems to be tautology. However, the original context of the verse offers some insight: it is the story of the prophet Elijah fighting the false prophets of Ba’al on Mount Carmel. After a fierce religious contest, the outcome of which would determine the fate of the Jewish people, God answered Elijah’s prayers by consuming the entire altar upon which he had prepared an offering with fire. When the people experienced the sudden revelation of the true God:

they fell on their faces and said: Adonay is Elohim.

The name Adonay refers to God in His essence – the ruler of all, unbounded by time or space - whereas Elohim describes Him manifest in this world. There is often a huge dichotomy between our expectations of the perfect King and the harsh reality of the imperfect world in which we live, where suffering and inequity abound. We may find it impossible to accept that the source of all life and love is the same God who allows pain and apparent injustice to exist.

In the time of Elijah, the Jewish people had been attracted to Ba’al worship; like other ancient religious systems, it probably drove a wedge between heaven and earth - between two different and apparently irreconcilable perceptions of the Divine. It acknowledged that God may be in heaven, but claimed that the forces controlling life on earth are not in His control and must be worshipped separately. Yet when the fire of God consumed Elijah’s offering, the people realised, albeit momentarily, that there really is no distinction – Adonay is indeed Elohim. It may remain beyond our comprehension on all but the rarest of occasions, but it is true nonetheless: the God of perfection is the same God who inhabits and is manifest within our imperfect reality.

Declaring Adonay hu HaElohim at the end of Yom Kippur is the profoundest achievement of the entire religious year: the apotheosis of ten days of devotion. It is an incredible, unparalleled spiritual moment, in which we find ourselves able to shout out with complete conviction that Avinu – our Father – is Malkenu – our King.

The earth-shattering collapse of boundaries in our understanding of the Divine that characterises the end of Ne’ilah may only last for a few moments, but its impact must reverberate throughout the rest of the year. One of the remarkable gifts we can take from Yom Kippur is a heightened awareness that the imperfection that seems to pervade our world is not as it seems. A close friend pointed out to me that every experience, including those challenges that seem unfair, unjust or are unbearably painful, emanate from a perfect, all-knowing and all-loving God, who while He is not always evident to us, acts for our long-term good. He is, despite appearances to the contrary, simultaneously Adonay and Elohim. This provides us with a fresh lens though which to greet with fortitude everything that God has in store for us in the year ahead.

Based on a short address given each year by the author to his community at the end of Ne’ilah.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents.

A Special Day (Yom Kippur 5768)

The sources express considerable interest in the opening lines of the Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning:

God spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aharon, when they drew near before God and they died. God said to Moshe: speak to Aharon your brother that he should not come near at any time to the holy place from the house of the curtain, to before the cover that is upon the ark, so they should not die, since in a cloud I shall appear upon the cover. With this Aharon shall come to the holy place: with a cow of the herd as a sin offering and a ram as a burnt offering. (VaYikra 16:1-3)

This refers to the prohibition of entering the Holy of Holies (the house of the curtain, etc.), the sole exception to which was the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur, whose activities there occupy the rest of the reading. The introduction, mentioning the death of the sons of Aharon, is particularly poignant, as it seems that their unauthorised entry to the Holy of Holies was the cause of their demise. Thinking about the ramifications of the death of Aharon’s sons is considered of some importance:

It is mentioned in the Zohar that anyone who is distressed by the death of Aharon’s sons or even cries tears for them, all his sins are forgiven… The primary purpose of this is that some should set one’s heart to repent of any sins that one may have in hand, for if this happened to such great people, what of ordinary mortals? (Mishnah Berurah, Orech Chaim 621, paraphrased)

The exception, as we have mentioned, is the entry of the Kohen Gadol to perform the special expiation ceremonies on behalf of the entire Jewish people on Yom Kippur. The esoteric writers alight on the word ‘with these’ ((בזאת in the third verse of the Torah reading. They understand the word זאת to refer to a most unusual confluence of occurrences – only in those circumstances could even the Kohen Gadol enter the holy place. In accordance with the writings of the Maharal of Prague and later, the Chassidic writers, these confluence is know as ‘world’, ‘year’ and ‘soul’, more easily understood as ‘place’ ‘time’ and ‘special human being. Only when a special person (the Kohen Gadol) was in a certain place at the right time, would entry to the place be permitted.

The common factor is the lack of space and time. Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year is imbued with a sense of timelessness – we transcend our normal needs and activities to devote a complete day to God. The Land of Israel, and especially Jerusalem and the Temple Mount were said to be able to hold as many people who visited there. The Mishnah notes that although thousands of people were crammed into the Temple courtyard, when they prostrated, there was unexpectedly room for everyone. Even more curiously, the ark, which rested in the Holy of Holies itself, apparently occupied no space itself (the room was larger than the ark). The Kohen Gadol was deemed to express the pinnacle of human spiritual development; this reached its zenith on Yom Kippur, when he was understood to be almost angelic. Only with זאת – on the holiest day of the year could the holiest man at the peak of his spiritual powers enter the holiest place on earth.

We may have no Temple and no Kohen, but we are capable of experiencing 25 hours of intense other-worldliness on Yom Kippur. Armed with a proper understanding of the majesty and potential of the day, we can transcend space and time for one day, touch the Divine and change ourselves and our world forever.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

At Least Remember The Rabbi's Joke (Rosh HaShanah 5768)

A childhood memory: I am walking home from Shul on Rosh HaShanah with my father. En route, fellow congregants are discussing two aspects of the recently-finished services: whether the rabbi’s joke was funny and how long his tekiah gedolah (final shofar-blast) had been. Years later, and now the likely subject of such pre-prandial chit-chat, I hope that I will feel inspired to preach on a topic that will disturb my congregants’ conversations well into lunch, perhaps even beyond their Yom Tov afternoon nap. Should I fail, I trust that they will at least remember my joke and that they will have cause to glance at their watches before my breath gives out!

Preceding Rosh HaShanah, the month of Elul, is traditionally dedicated to introspection, extra prayer and reviewing the past year’s achievements ahead of the season of Divine judgement. It is difficult for anyone with a busy schedule to manage this, but paradoxically, this period can find a pulpit rabbi torn between personal and communal responsibilities.

Part of the problem is simply a matter of time. During this period a rabbi (supported by his lay-team) must ensure that all of the practical details, such as timetabling and arranging officiants, are in place. He will need to rehearse relevant parts of the services, prepare news-sheets containing community information and inspirational ideas, assemble numerous special lectures and, of course, write those all-important sermons. As Yom Kippur and Sukkot approach, the number of halakhic questions that congregants ask increases, and before Yom Tov, senior rabbis will often find their counsel sought by a bevy of junior colleagues. This will have to be fitted around a rabbi’s regular teaching, as well as any pastoral, consultancy and writing commitments.

My ideal Elul would be a more private and personal one. It would consist of days scrutinising the texts of the Yamim Norayim (High-holy days) prayers, repairing relationships with those I have upset during the year, internalising the guides to self-improvement of Maimonides, Luzzato and Rav Kook, exercising more than usual, and getting some early nights. However, since it is simply impossible to completely accommodate both sets of demands, some aspects of personal development must be shelved in favour of communal responsibility.

But beyond the fact that there is insufficient time to achieve everything in the pre-Yom Tov period, there is a clash of paradigms that is seldom mentioned. It is often unclear what expectations occasional congregants have of their Yom Tov Shul visit, but it is likely that they differ considerably from those of their rabbi. Ask an Anglo-Jew, ‘Why participate in the three-times-a-year show?’ and the response will probably be, ‘it’s just something I’ve always done,’ or, ‘I’d feel guilty if I didn’t’. Ask the same question to that person’s rabbi and he will say something like, ‘it’s an unparalleled opportunity to reawaken one’s divine consciousness, repair one’s relationships with other people, and declare God sovereign over all creation.

This explains why a rabbi may conduct himself as though the first day of Rosh HaShanah (in most Anglo-Jewish Shuls, the noisiest of the year) is the ultimate moment of mystical union with God, while some of his congregants are catching up on a year’s news. This mismatch of expectations can inhabit every aspect of the Yamim Norayim experience, including the style and timing of the prayers, what constitutes appropriate conduct during services and, it must be said, the objective of the sermon. Some pulpit rabbis are fortunate to have a community of receptive, intelligent and knowledgeable people, eager to hear an inspirational Jewish message. Yet others may struggle to square the rich aspirations of their own ‘inner’ Yom Tov with the reality of their congregants’ expectations of light entertainment.

These unarticulated tensions can obviously lead to frustration, but also to something worse – a miserable rabbi who assumes that all the preparations have been pointless, even that the Yom Tov season was a failure. To avoid this, I try to focus on two things. First, despite what I have written, I endeavour to plan a sermon that will stir both me and my congregants, by concentrating on some universal aspect of the human condition, such as the challenges of faith or the importance of personal growth. Indeed, I would like to think that my most successful sermons to date were those that almost moved me to tears when I delivered them. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I try to remember that it is a sublime privilege to be the religious leader of a community. For whatever reason, God has granted me the opportunity to carry hundreds of people with me on a spiritual journey at this time of the year: this fact alone allows all of us to share the same inspiration and makes the whole enterprise indubitably worthwhile.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

A Sense Of The Majesty Of The King (Rosh HaShanah 5768)

God and God of our ancestors: rule over the entire world, all of it, in Your glory and be elevated over all the earth in You majesty. (Amidah, Rosh HaShanah)

It is well-know that the central them of the whole Rosh Hashanah prayer service is the sovereignty of God. Recognising God as ruler of all history and experience is described by the Talmud and commentators as the primary objective of the day. The shofar service may be seen in the same light as a coronation ceremony for God: sounding the trumpets to announce the arrival of the King.

The lines above introduce the final paragraph of the section of the Amidah dealing with this theme, and seem to contain a redundancy. Why the apparent repetition of ‘entire’ and ‘all‘? The commentators see in this a profound idea: the difference between quality and quantity in our perception of the Divine:

The intention of the apparently redundant repetition in ‘rule over the entire world, all of it’ actually refers to two aspects of the sovereignty of heaven: in quantity and quality. The phrase ‘rule over the whole world’ refers to quantity –the dominion of God should extend over the entire creation and be evident to all. The phrase ‘all of it, in Your glory’ refers to quality – the hope that the entire creation and every tiny part of it will be filled with the glory of God. Only that will be complete Divine rule. (Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, commentary to Amidah)

This is a neat answer to the textual problem – it is a prayer for God’s majesty to pervade everything and in every way. It seems quite theoretical, though, so the prayer continues by expressing the concept in more practical detail:

Everything created shall know that You created it, everything formed shall understand that You formed it, and everything with a breath in its mouth shall declare that the Lord God of Israel is King and His kingdom extends over everything.

The awareness of God’s sovereignty is to be translated into understanding of its consequences and eventually into a declaration of its reality. Again, Rabbi Friedlander:

It is insufficient for them to simply recognise God’s sovereignty…. Their recognition of the sovereignty of God must come to expression through the Jewish people who utilise the creation to perform His will.

This quite startling – the declaration that God is King both in quantity and quality is achieved through action. This is always the Jewish way – thought and theology are only a prelude to action: behaving in a way that expresses the concepts of Judaism. Real, meaningful religious life is to be expressed not merely by thought but by action, for only through action do we change ourselves and improve the world.

In this context, we should see the shofar (and the whole Rosh HaShanah experience) as a clarion not just to awareness, but to action. What we will be doing in the year ahead to make God’s reality more tangible? Will we be more engaged in social projects, religious development and communal activity? Will we see events in the news, especially those involving the Jewish people and Israel, as opportunities to see the Divine? If Rosh HaShanah can help us achieve these objectives even in small measure, it will have been two days well spent.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Not In Heaven (Nitzavim 5767)

For this Mitzvah is not [too] wondrous for you nor is it distant. It is not in heaven that one would say: who will ascend for us towards the heaven and take it for us in order to tell it to us so that we should do it? Nor is it across the sea that one would say: who will cross for us to the other side of the sea and take it for us in order to tell it to us so that we should do it? For the matter is very close to you in your mouth and in your heart to do it. (Devarim 30:12-14)

The simple understanding of this is that the Torah, once given is in the hands of Man. One need not ascend to the heavens to retrieve it, as it has already been placed in the human domain, nor must one cross the world to find it, as it is accessible to all.

Rashi offers an unexpected interpretation, based on the Talmud:

It is not in heaven –were it in heaven, you would have to ascend after it to learn it.

How could this be so? Perhaps Rashi means that God would give us the means to extract the Torah from heaven. Fortunately, this isn’t necessary, as the Torah has already made it into the human domain. One may extend this to the conceptual realm: no miraculous or supernatural means are required or indeed allowed, to determine Torah law.

This is exemplified by the famous story of the halachic status of the ‘oven of Achnay’ (a type of collapsible portable oven):

It was taught there: they divided it into sections and put sand between each section – Rebbi Eli’ezer purified and the sages impurified. This is the oven of ‘Achnay’. What is ‘Achnay?’ Said Rav Yehudah in the name of Sh’muel: they turned impurified it. (the rabbis disagreed as to whether this oven was subject to ritual impurity).

It was taught: on that day Rebbi Eli’ezer gave all the responses in the world, but they did not accept them from him. He said to them: if the halachah is like me, let that carob tree prove it. The carob uprooted itself from its place for 100 cubits and some say 400 cubits. They said: one may not bring proof from a carob tree. He returned to them and said: if the halachah is like me, let the water spring prove it. The water spring started to flow backwards. They said to him: one may not bring proof from a water spring. He returned and said to them: if the halachah is like me, let the walls of the study hall prove it. The walls of the study hall began to cave in, as if to fall. Rebbi Yehoshua rebuked them by saying to them: while Torah scholars may try to beat each other in halachah, what have you to do with it? They didn’t fall, respecting Rebbi Yehoshua, nor did they stand upright, respecting Rebbi Eli’ezer and they are still standing, but leaning! He returned and said to them: if the halachah is like me, let it be proved from heaven. A heavenly voice emerged and said: what are you doing with Rebbi Eli’ezer, for the halachah is like him in every place! Rebbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: it is not in the heavens. What does ‘it is not in the heavens’ mean? Said Rebbi Yirmiyah: since the Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai, we don’t rely on heavenly voices, for it was already written in the Torah at Mount Sinai: incline after the majority. Rebbi Natan found Eliyahu and said to him: what is God doing just now? He said to him: he is laughing and saying – My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me! (Bava Metzia 59a-b)

The Seforno gives a completely different explanation. He assumes that the Torah tells us that we won’t need prophets to interpret the text for us, nor:

…sages who are distant to explain it for us. It is presented in a way that we can observe it even in exile…

The Torah can be understood by an ordinary person at any time in Jewish history – perhaps this is one of the miracles of Jewish survival.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Kol Isha Today

The Israeli media recently reported the story of an observant singer, Eliyahu Faizkov, whose high-pitched singing vocals have been banned from some religious radio stations. Apparently, some listeners had objected, assuming that they were listening to the voice of woman.

The mere suggestion that kol ishah (the prohibition of a man listening to a woman singing) should apply in the modern era is bound to raise hackles. In a society where overt sexual behaviour is common-place, this rule seems anachronistic: laughable perhaps, certainly deeply counter-cultural and to many, disempowering and offensive to women. Yet kol ishah is widely observed in the religious world and actually reflects deep truths about male-female interactions.

The key source is the Talmudic statement by Shemuel noting that a woman’s voice is sexually exciting; this indicates that in principle a man should not listen to a woman singing. Almost all sources understand this dictum to refer only to a woman’s singing voice.

The circumstances in which this rule applies has been debated for centuries. Some suggest that Shemuel’s statement was made only with reference to a man reciting the Shema – i.e. he may not say the Shema within earshot of a woman singing. Other important sources understand that the statement is a general one: a man may not listen for pleasure to a woman singing even when he is not praying or saying the Shema, as this would be considered a forbidden form of stimulation. The Shulhan Arukh (code of Jewish law) clearly rules in favour of the second, more stringent opinion.

There is fierce discussion among later sources about men and women singing together in groups, especially around the Shabbat table. Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg notes that the common practice was (and remains) that women refrained from singing Shabbat songs in the presence of guests who were not family members. Yet in nineteenth-century Germany women commonly participated in zemirot (table-songs), relying on the Talmudic principle that ‘two voices singing together cannot be distinguished’. This assumes that kol ishah applies only to a solo voice, although the sources do not extend the leniency beyond the Shabbat table. Rabbi Weinberg, while not entirely happy with this reasoning, allows women to sing holy songs in mixed groups, based on the additional assumption that the religious nature of the music precludes arousal. This view has been contested by a number of subsequent authorities and remains a matter of dispute. The ‘traditional’ practice is the norm in most Charedi societies, whereas the ‘German’ custom is common in Modern Orthodox circles.

Contemporary halachists debate whether the restriction of kol ishah should apply to broadcast and recorded music. Rabbi Yaakov Breisch assumes that the prohibition applies with full force in such circumstances, but Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg contends that in the case of a radio broadcast or recording, one is not actually hearing the voice, but an electronic reproduction of it. While this may seem a technicality, the qualitative distinction between live and recorded music is undeniable and since one cannot fulfil the Mitzvah of hearing the Megillah over the radio, presumably a broadcast of a woman’s voice cannot constitute kol ishah. He also connects visual and aural stimulation and rules that when the man cannot see the woman, he may listen to a radio broadcast of her voice. Rabbi Yosef agrees with this position, but asserts that the same leniency won’t apply to a television show! For obvious reasons, he also restricts it to a case where the man has no idea what the woman singing looks like.

For the modern reader, the halachic issues are insignificant in comparison with the conceptual difficulties raised by kol ishah. Are men really aroused by women’s voices? Why is there no equivalent prohibition for women, called, say kol ish? Shouldn’t these rules be dependent on societal norms? If so, hardly anyone today considers a woman’s singing voice to be erotic. (Rabbi Yosef and others assert that the fact that we are comfortable with women’s voices does not remove the prohibition of kol ishah).

The Talmud places the onus on men to avoid listening to women’s voices. It may be polite (and it certainly makes life easier) for a woman to avoid singing in the presence of a man, but the burden of obligation falls on the man to avoid situations that compromise his religious life. There is no obligation for a woman to refrain from singing and no expectation that a woman should stifle her need to sing: sometimes, a man will have to make himself scarce. As with other areas of Jewish life, great sensitivity is required to weigh competing interests – in this case, the very real need of women to express themselves through the powerful medium of song, balanced against the law of kol ishah.

Judaism offers a wise approach to understanding male-female interactions. We delude ourselves if we think that men and women are sexually stimulated in the same way: a cursory glance at contemporary advertising and media is sufficient to dispel that myth. Judaism recognises that men are more frequently aroused by visual and other sensory stimuli than women. To redress this quite natural imbalance, Jewish law imposes a number of restrictions on men beyond those also incumbent on women: one of these is kol ishah. Put simply, creating a healthy and respectful Jewish society demands recognition and regulation of various stimuli, tailored to the needs of each gender.

In a desensitised world, kol ishah seems quaint, almost absurd. Yet it enables us to understand just how delicate our level of awareness should be. It is a tragedy that most men today claim to find nothing erotic in a woman’s singing voice, something that is natural and healthy. Observing kol ishah is one way to rekindle lost sensitivities, enabling us in turn to invest more of ourselves in our special relationships.


Shemuel said: the voice of a woman is ervah (sexually exciting), as the verse says: (Song 2:14) for your voice is sweet and your appearance attractive. (Talmud Berakhot 24a)

It is prohibited (for a man) to hear the voice of one forbidden to him. (Shulhan Arukh Ever HaEzer 21:1)

Whenever the song isn’t crude and [the man] doesn’t intend to enjoy [the woman’s] voice… while it is certainly appropriate to be stringent (and avoid listening)… it isn’t a surprising view (to be lenient). (Rabbi Chaim Chizkiyahu Medini, Sedey Hemed, quoting Divrey Hefetz)

When I came to the city of Berlin, I saw men and women singing holy Shabbat songs together in the homes of the very orthodox and I was astonished, for it contradicts an explicit law…. But after some investigation, I discovered that Rabbi Ezriel Hildesheimer, and Rabbi S.R. Hirsch from Frankfurt allowed the singing of holy songs together…. (Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg, Seridey Aish 2:8)

….Shemuel’s law is not a general proposition as to the sexually arousing character of a woman’s voice, but rather is a restriction on the recitation of Shema under circumstances where it is not possible to maintain proper concentration. (Rabbi Saul Berman, Kol Isha)

The conclusion (of Rabbi Berman)…. is fundamentally mistaken, resulting from the author’s having ignored the key discussion…. (Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, Kol Isha Reviewed)

Do not think that now that everyone is accustomed to women’s voices we are no longer concerned about erotic thoughts…. (Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Yabia Omer 1:6)

Joke: May a religious man attend the opera? He’s not over* until the fat lady sings.

* doesn’t transgress

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.