Sunday, 28 December 2014

Fasting on New Year's Day

Last year, I wrote a blog about the fast of the 10th of Tevet and Friday the 13th as it fell out in 2013, click here to read. This year the fast falls on New Year's Day. For what New Year's Day traditionally means for Jews please click here. But in today's blog post, I want to focus on what this fast really means for us.

The short answer is it was the start of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, 2600 years ago. But if you look a bit deeper the fast actually commemorates 3 things that happened on the 8th, 9th and 10th of Tevet. On the eighth of Tevet during the Second Temple period, Ptolemy, King of Egypt, ordered the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, a work which later became known as the Septuagint. Seventy two sages were placed in solitary confinement and ordered to translate the Torah into Greek. 

The expected outcome would be a multitude of different translations that would then be compared and critiqued by the Greeks as there were some sentences in the bible that could be understood as offensive to pagans if taken wrongly and would obviously need to be changed. This would demonstrate the muddled meanings of the Torah and the divergent opinions of Jewish interpreters. 

Masekhet Megillah  records the event as follows "King Ptolemy once gathered 72 Elders. He placed them in 72 chambers, each of them in a separate one, without revealing to them why they were summoned. He entered each one's room and said: Write for me the Torah of Moshe, your teacher. God put it in the heart of each one to translate identically as all the others did."

The Greeks saw this as a most impressive feat at the time. However, despite this great miracle the various rabbinical sources see this event as a tragedy, a debasement of the divine nature of the Torah, and a subversion of its spiritual qualities. They reasoned that upon translation from the original Hebrew, the Torah's legal codes & deeper layers of meaning would be lost. Many Jewish laws are formulated in terms of specific Hebrew words employed in the Torah; without the original Hebrew code, authenticity of the legal system would be damaged. 

Indeed, our reliance on English translations today can be seen as both a blessing and a curse. A blessing to have the ability to study texts that up until now were only available to Hebrew scholars. And a curse since we rely too heavily on their translations and interpretations without properly studying the Hebrew.

I like to view the 10th of Tevet as the polar opposite of Hanukah. On Hanukah, we celebrate the fact that the Greeks and the Hellenized Jews were defeated by the Torah faithful Jews. However, there were costs involved in our survival and living among the Greeks. Our Holy Torah was translated into Greek and this affected our culture and our very way of life. 

As a child growing up in England, in my teenage years, we would often discuss are we English Jews or are we Jewish Englishmen? To what extent do we value the Western values that enhance our lives and to what extent do they change our views of Judaism? These are the kind of things I ponder this time of year, when the world around us is focusing on Christmas and New Year, we have Hanukah and the fast of Tevet. I think the calendar is designed like this to make us think about our Judaism when it is so much easier to get wrapped up in non-Jewish Holidays instead. 

On the 9th of Tevet Ezra HaSofer who brought the Jews back from Babylon to build the Second Temple died. Some say Nechemia also died. The Tenth itself marks the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians ultimately leading to the destruction of the First Temple. Even though these events took place over a couple of hundred years. I think the message is clear. If we allow ourselves to become totally assimilated into foreign cultures it can lead not only to our spiritual numbness but eventually to even worse scenarios. We should not only celebrate our holidays but also commemorate our fasts and hold dear to what is truly valuable. 

Thursday's  Fast begins at 6:17am and ends at 4:58pm (Seattle Times). Shacharit at SBH is at 8:00am and Minha with Talet and Tefillin is at 3:45pm. 

Monday, 22 December 2014

Chanukah Why is it 8 days long?

Here's the classic and timeless question asked by Rav Yosef Karo in his most prodigious work, Bet Yosef (O.H. 670): A flask with one night’s oil burned for 8 nights. But being that there was oil for one night, the miracle actually lasted only 7 nights. So why is Chanukah 8 nights? 

The simplicity of this 500 year old question has brought about much interest and many different answers. I'd like to bring seven of the more famous answers. Here are three answers  from Rav Karo himself:

1. The Cohanim in charge of preparing the Menorah for lighting knew that it would take eight days until new oil could be obtained. They therefore divided the flask into eight parts, so that at least the Menorah would at least be lit every day. A miracle occurred and the small amount of oil that was placed in the Menorah each day lasted an entire day.

2. On the first night, the contents of the jug was emptied into the Menorah. After filling the entire menorah the oil jug was still full of oil.

3. After the first night, when they entered the sanctuary the next morning to clean the menorah, they found that the cups of the menorah were still full of oil, despite having burned the entire night.

4. The Meiri writes that The Greeks defiled and looted the Temple for many days in search of oil to defile. Despite their superiority in strength and numbers, they missed one flask. The Jews entered the Beit HaMikdash and found the one jar of oil that hadn't been defiled straightaway. 

5. The Peri Hadash explains that the seven days commemorate the miracle of the oil, and one day commemorates the miracle that a few weak Jewish soldiers defeated the mighty Greek legions.

6. Chidushei HaRim explains that they knew that the oil wouldn't last eight days so they made the wicks one-eighth of the normal thickness. Nevertheless, the flames burned just as brightly as if the wicks had been the normal thickness.

7. The Arukh HaShulkhan writes that the Mitzvah of Berit Milah was forbidden under the reign of Antiochus, after the military victory, the Jews were once again able to openly perform the commandment. Since the Berit Milah takes place on the 8th day we celebrate Hanukah for 8 days. 

8. In the Book of the Maccabees, it states that the Jews were unable to celebrate Sukkot that year. So the 8 days of Hanukah was established in lieu of the 8 days of Sukkot. (Thanks David Balint)

חנוכה שמח, Happy Chanukah and Hanukah Allegre!

Monday, 8 December 2014

Can a woman be a president of a synagogue?

On Sunday December 14th the membership of Sephardic Bikur Holim (SBH) will have the opportunity to amend the bylaws to allow every member in good standing to serve the synagogue in an executive board function, including vice president and/or president. I have been asked to write a blog to explain the history of this topic at SBH and the halakhic issues involved.

This topic has come up twice before at SBH, once in the 1990s and once in 2012. In the late 90s it was decided not to change the bylaws. Two years ago there was much debate to change the bylaws. At that time SBH did not have a rabbi and it was recommended to wait until the new rabbi would be appointed to give his halakhic ruling on the topic. So as the new rabbi I was tasked with coming up with a definitive halakhic ruling to present as the 2014 general membership meeting. 

I would like to share with you my decision making. First of all, I read the substantial halakhic literature on the subject. Second, I listened to different members of the community who were involved in the decisions in the 1990s and in 2012. Third, I discussed the issue with our rabbis emeritus and with senior rabbis in the community and the United States. 

Here is a summary of the halakhic literature based on an excellent article by Rabbis Aryeh and Dov Frimer in 2007. In the book of Devarim (17:14-20) the Torah states the laws of appointing a Jewish King. The Midrashic commentary the Sifrei notes that the Torah mentions the word king three times. From the fact that the word king is mentioned three times we must learn something new each time it is mentioned. One of the three things learned is that you may appoint a king - but not a queen. 

The Rambam codifies the halakha as follows. "We may not appoint a woman as king. When describing the monarchy, the Torah employs the male form of the word king and not the female. This principle also applies to all other positions of leadership within Israel. Only men should be appointed to fill them." (Hilkhot Melakhim 1:5) The question we have before us is what is leadership or in Hebrew "serara"? Serara can be understood to be anyone who makes unilateral decisions. There are several rishonim (medieval halakhic decisors) such as the Hinukh, Rashi and Ran who disagree with the Rambam's interpretation. They limit the scope to just a woman becoming a queen but they allow for a woman to have a leadership role. 

I would like to jump to the 20th Century. In a number of lengthy responsa it is clear that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled against women taking on leadership roles in synagogues. Rav Soloveitchik was asked about women serving on synagogue boards. Rabbis Aryeh and Dov Frimer write the following: "The Rav responded that he saw no reason why women could not serve as a board member. It was not serara since the final decision was made by the board and not by the member. The members merely had input. The Rav did rule that women could not be synagogue presidents. Presidents had certain prerogatives and that constituted serara." Rabbi Maimon, being a student of Rav Soloveitchik holds that a woman can be on the board but cannot be a president or vice president. Hacham Uziel, former chief Rabbi of Israel wrote that our democratic system changes everything and even the Rambam would agree that there is no serara here.  

I felt that in the last twenty years since the passing of Rav Soloveitchik things have evolved a great deal. Synagogue boards work differently. President does not make decisions unilaterally. There is no discretionary power, all decisions are made by committees or boards and not by individuals. I felt it was important to talk to a major posek, a halakhic decider of complicated meta-halakhic issues. 

I contacted Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz, the Av Beit Din of the Rabbinical Council of America he indicated to me that he believes that the issues raised by the Rambam are not applicable to the position of synagogue president, and that, consequently, there is no halakhic prohibition. He added that it would be better if there was a woman who wished to be president but did not say that it was essential. 

Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch, head of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Ma'ale Adumim, Israel and a well known modern orthodox posek, felt that there was good reason to allow a woman to serve as a synagogue President, since to his mind serara is the right to exercise discretionary authority. This does not exist in synagogue presidencies as every decision is reviewed by the Board and members. 

To the question of changing the status quo and what the Orthodox Jewish community is comfortable with, there are a number of orthodox organizations in Seattle that have Female presidents or leaders both currently and in the past. There are also many orthodox synagogues outside of Seattle with female presidents. 

To those who are concerned about the slippery slope, Rabbi Frimer writes the following "Rav Nahum was, however, concerned about the cohesiveness of the community. In the 50s, 60s and 70s there was a real justified fear of the slippery slope, of the inroads made by Conservative Judaism. But in 2007, things have, to his mind, changed radically. Orthodoxy is vibrant and the Conservative movement is weak. Nevertheless, one can’t dismiss the fears and concerns of those who want to be stringent. But these fears and concerns may well dissipate in 10 years from now."

My definitive halakhic ruling is that women can serve as vice president or president of SBH. Despite Rabbi Maimon supporting the view of his illustrious teacher Rabbi Solovetichik, both Rabbi Maimon and Rabbi Benzaquen have made it clear to me that they support the process I went through and that I asked a major posek. Whatever, the membership decides on Sunday, I hope that this does not become a divisive issue. I feel that I have shown through the halakhic sources that it is permitted to have women serve in the positions of vice-president and president. It is now up to the membership to vote.

To read the article by Rabbis Aryeh and Dov Frimer in full, please click here

Monday, 1 December 2014

Organ Donation in Halakha

Can/should I donate organs when I am alive? E.g. donating a kidney or bone marrow or donating blood? The Torah tells us not to stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (Vayikra 19:16). But can we risk our own lives to save others? The answer lies in the risk level. If the donor would be high risk most halakhic decisors would rule the act forbidden but if the risk is relatively low halakhic decisors generally permit and could even mandate it. 

Rabbi Joshua Flug writes "donating a kidney entails a certain degree of risk. In a survey of over 10,000 kidney donations, two donor deaths were reported. If we assume that one must undertake a certain degree of risk in order to save a life, one cannot absolve himself from the obligation to donate a kidney based on the risks associated with donating a kidney."

Rav Moshe Feinstein writes (Igrot Moshe, Yoreh De'ah 2:174) that a person is not obligated to donate an organ to save another person. However, he considers the act meritorious. Rav Ovadiah Yosef ( Yehave Daat 3:84) hints that not only is it meritorious it might even be obligatory.

Can/Should I donate my organs after I die? Are there any halakhic impediments? What do I need to do to be ready? This is an area of halakha which has had many evolutions over the years and it is one which is quite misunderstood. Most Jews think it is forbidden and don't even bother looking into the subject. A wikipedia article quotes Nancy Scheper-Hughes of Organ Watch who writes that "Israel has become a 'pariah' in the organ transplant world. The lack of donations due to Jewish custom heightened the disparity between the supply and demand of organs." All this when Israel is at the forefront in transplant technology. 

Before we can discuss organ donation after death, we must decide when a person dies. What is the definition of death? Is it when the heart stops beating or is it the cessation of respiration (Brain-Stem death)? "Brain-stem death is a term used to describe the whole brain dying – both the cortex and the brain-stem. The brain-stem is the central nervous system of the human body and it is the center of consciousness. If the brain-stem dies, respiration will stop. Once the heart stops receiving oxygen it too will die and stop beating and all other organs also die as a result of oxygen deprivation." Dr Paul Ratzker

Ratzker concludes "a brain-stem dead patient is not a person suffering from brain-stem death – he is dead! Once death has been established the question facing the family in this situation is, what to do? Should the family turn off the ventilator and bury the deceased? Or should the family keep the body on a ventilator in order to donate organs and save other people’s lives? Emotionally this is a difficult decision and every family has to do what they feel is right."

Scientifically there is no debate on this issue, the moment of death is brain-stem death. However, in Jewish law it is a little bit more complicated. Rabbi Shlomo M. Brody summarizes the halakhic positions very well in his book A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates. He explains that the position of Rav Moshe Feinstein "in 1976 that brain-stem death fulfils the halakhic criterion of death, even if the heart continues beating due to artificial respiration... In 1987, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel endorsed this position, pronouncing conventional, non-experimental organ transplants a great mitzva."

The Halachic Organ Donor Society (HODS) has the following to say. "Organs for donation are usually taken from a person whose heart is still beating and was declared dead because the patient’s brain had died.  Some Rabbis, however, view a beating heart as a sign of life (and prohibit removing organs) while other Rabbis do not deem a beating heart sufficient for life (requiring brain function and autonomous) and therefore allow donation from a brain dead patient.

"The Halachic Organ Donor Society recognizes this debate and encourages organ donation at either stage by offering a unique organ donor card that allows a person to choose donation at brain death or alternatively at cessation of heartbeat.

"From a medical perspective, however, it is difficult to recover organs after cardiac death.  In addition, the heart and lungs cannot be recovered once the heart dies. Therefore the decision about when to donate is significant." To read more about organ donations before and after death, please go to the HODS website