Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Here is the New York Times' annual kosher wine review (link from Kosherblog). I'm afraid that "not unpleasant" does not describe my experiences with Teal Lake Shiraz. Maybe I'm just not a Shiraz person.

It is interesting that the top three wines are from California. There was a period when I bought only Israeli wines (to help compensate for Europeans boycotting Israel) and French wines (to help compensate for Jews boycotting Europe). I may have missed out.

No particularly appealing Passover recipes from either the Times or the Globe this year. It would be too late for us, anyway.
In a comment to Out of Step Jew's post on "Books, Dust, and Chametz," George posted the URL to an article by R. Shlomo Aviner entitled, "How Not to Clean for Passover." I think it's about the right time in the week for a few reassuring words, if only to prevent (additional?) unnecessary ulcers. Here is a summary with my comments:

1. If you're going away for the entire holiday, you can "rent out" your living space and not clean at all. If you will be home the night before, however, you are still required to do bedikat chametz (the candlelit search for chametz) wherever you are. I had to do this once, and it was exceedingly strange -- searching for the pieces of bread I'd put out while ignoring all my other chametz. Rabbi Aviner suggests cleaning out a small room (e. g. the foyer), and performing the search there. (If you live in one room, I suppose you can clean a corner or other small area.) This makes considerably more sense than what I did.

2. The prohibition against owning chametz only applies to pieces of larger than a kezayit (3 cubic cm.). There is no need to clean rooms in which you don't eat, and no need to panic over the possibility of missing a few crumbs.

3. There is no need to worry about chametz in unreachable places. (This would include the spaces between the keys of your keyboard, Old Timer ;-).) Bits of chametz in corners and crevices, or stuck in the radiator, or whatever, are not only normally smaller than a kezayit, but also "unfit for consumption by a dog."

4. R. Aviner does not recommend using Passover vacation (halevai aleinu!) for "spring cleaning." Nissan is supposed to be a happy month. We were freed from bondage in Egypt, and there's no need to re-enslave ourselves.

For our part, I know that DH and I would never do this thorough a cleaning job if we didn't do it before Passover. I've never lived in one place for more than a year (except with my parents), but every time I've moved I've discovered positively revolting things in nooks and crannies that had never been cleaned. I don't even want to think about what this place would look like after six years if we didn't do one thorough cleaning job each year. Having a deadline helps.

It's also worth noting that R. Aviner is dealing with a sociological reality different from (most of?) ours. He's concerned that women will slave through their one opportunity to hand the kids over to hubby and travel with friends. Those of us in egalitarian households who don't have real "breaks" may as well clean now as any time.

5. It is important to carefully clean clothes that children will wear over the holiday and games with which they will play, since children may actually pick up small crumbs and eat them. (Apparently, "unfit for consumption by a dog" does not imply "unfit for consumption by a toddler.") Children's pockets should be checked even after the clothing is put through the wash. There is no need to clean out-of-season clothes that they won't wear.

6. R. Aviner apparently maintains that non-food products can still be considered chametz. He recommends locking problematic cleaning products in the medicine cabinet and selling it. Others include non-food products in the category of items that are "unfit for consumption by a dog."

7. It isn't necessary to clean between the pages of books, even if there may be crumbs there, unless you plan on placing the books on the kitchen or dining room table. (It's a good idea to use haggadot rather than "benchers" for birkat ha-mazon.)

8. The article includes guidelines for cleaning and kashering the kitchen. Such guidelines can be found in numerous books and websites, with minor variations (e. g. how to deal with dishwashers and microwaves). R. Aviner does not recommend cleaning anything that can be locked up or taped over and sold. He recommends cleaning the kitchen first and then moving on to rooms that are less vital.

9. Cleaning for Passover is important, and it is permissible -- even commendable -- to take on stringencies. However, if these will cause tension within the family or make the Passover season miserable, it may be better not to. Those who take on stringencies without being aware that they are stringencies (as opposed to the letter of the law) are not required to maintain them.

R. Aviner states that it is important to have a "kosher Purim" and a "happy Passover." This is probably a cliche in the frum world, but I've never heard it. Sounds good.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

According to, hemp is "considered acceptable by some rabbis and kitniyot by others."

Monday, March 29, 2004

We talk about "building a fence around the Torah." When it comes to Passover, it's more like a mile-high fortress surrounded by a mile-wide moat and guarded by fire-breathing dragons.

Take kitniyot (kitniyos), foods that are not and cannot become chametz (leaven), but are forbidden according to Ashkenazi custom. Kitniyot fall into two categories. First, there are legumes, which, on account of their nitrogen-fixing properties, used to be grown alongside grains. As a result, is was impossible to harvest legumes without including a few grains. Then there are grains that are not among the five that can become chametz (wheat, rye, oats, barley and spelt). These are forbidden because their flour is difficult to distinguish from the flour of the problematic five.

Neither of these issues is particularly relevant today. The practice of growing legumes alongside grains was long ago replaced by a crop rotation system. Rice flour comes in packages labeled "rice flour," so it is difficult to mistake it for anything else. The same applies to the flour of corn and other grains. Corn on the cob, corn oil, and corn syrup are should be even less problematic.

Yet, the list of kitniyot seems to expand every year. In spite of R. Moshe Feinstein's position, legumes that were unknown in Eastern Europe, such as peanuts, are now forbidden. Then there are products such as sesame and mustard, which are forbidden because they resemble other kitniyot. Hardly anyone accepts the position that derivatives of kitniyot, such as oils, are permitted. Kitniyot are, for most practical purposes, treated as chametz.

Kitniyot are only the tip of the iceburg. At this time of year, you'll find generally reasonable people "kashering" their doorknobs and lining their walls with aluminum foil. You'll find people pre-buying milk, in case the cow that it came from ate one of the forbidden grains. Charedim in Israel will set aside bottles of tap water, in case the Sea of Galilee was contaminated by a fisherman eating a sandwhich. (Sephardim will use filters.) People will pre-wash their mushrooms. Women will sell their makeup. Meredith will probably kasher her hair iron.

The worst aspect of this insanity is that, in practice, I buy into it wholesale. The obsessive-compulsive tendencies that I criticize in other Jews year round suddenly become my own. Yesterday, I insisted that we buy tea and olive oil that were certified for Passover. Now I'm worried about my bottled water. (I've heard that the caps are sometimes sealed with chametz.) Even worse, I've been reading the Star-K website:

As Pesach nears, the grocery bills mount and the bank account dwindles, the Jewish housewife courageously attempts to hold the household budget intact without compromising her strict standard of Pesach Kashrus.

That's what I need! A Jewish housewife! Where can I get one?

Can the Passover consumer confidently purchase fresh fruits and vegetables without worrying about the wax coatings used to maintain the freshness of the fresh fruit and vegetables? Our research of food grade waxes has shown that soy proteins may be used as a thickener in some waxes. This means that the waxes may contain Kitniyos derivative [sic!].

Kitniyot derivatives? Nooooooooooooooo!

However, since the soy protein would be Batul Brov, [sic!] it is a minor ingredient, which would be permissible on Pesach, and would not pose a problem to [sic!] supermarket fruits and vegetables.

I've heard otherwise. Shoot. Now I can't trust the Star-K.

Fresh Peeled or Value Added Vegetables, such as peeled potatoes, carrots, or celery in plastic pails, or in plastic bags, has become a real favorite among housewives. It is fresh, clean, a time saver, and seemingly free of Kosher for Passover concerns. SAVE ONE. How do you retard browning, i.e. oxidation, so that the vegetables retain their fresh appearance? Some companies use metabisulfites, which are Kosher for Pesach, [sic!] other companies use citric acid, which would require Kosher L'Pesach Certification.

Fotunately, I have never even considered buying pre-peeled vegetables on Passover. (Seriously.)

It goes without saying that leafy vegetables going through a clean and wash system would require strict Hashgacha on their cleaning system insuring the consumer that the system effectively removes insects which are forbidden year round.

Wait -- leafy vegetables can be kosher? Now I really don't trust the Star-K.

In spite of its glaring leniencies, this website did help me avert a near disaster. As DH and I were trying to cut down on our list of products to buy in Brookline yesterday, he suggested that it might be all right to buy uncertified honey at our local supermarket. (Now he assures me that he would have done some research before making any such purchase.) I quickly rejoined that even honey marked 100% pure may be adulterated with trace amounts of kitniyot. ELF saves the day again!

All right, enough of this silliness. I have to start cleaning, or I may not have enough time to kasher the bathroom.

Friday, March 26, 2004

This link was sent to me by my mom. Jonah Goldberg has such a way with words. (Me and my conservative publications . . .)
Hooray for Avraham Bronstein! Were it not for him, I might never have learned that the society of People Who Think They're Practicing Judaism But Really Aren't just gained a flood of new members.

Avraham informs us that Dr. Yaakov Stern was "recently forced to conclude that Modern Orthodoxy is not Judaism." Why? Well, for one thing, certain people who call themselves Modern Orthodox rely on the Lower East Side eruv. Now that is definitely not Judaism.

I'm sorry to be flippant about this -- I realize that it's a major issue for many halakhic Jews -- but do you people realize how much you're limiting yourselves here?

Ah, well. It's nice to have company.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

You've probably already read or heard this delightful story. James Taranto notes some confusion regarding the boy's age and suggests that he may be mentally handicapped. That would explain a few things.

God help us.
The New York Post's Amir Tahiri provides some context for the Yassin asassination.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Protocols' Steven I. Weiss announces the upcoming release of Rabbi Steven Greenberg's book, Wrestling With God and Men. Read the comments.

(Clarification: Steven Greenberg = Yaakov Greenberg = Yaakov Levado)

Monday, March 22, 2004

By now, you probably all know that Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was assassinated early this morning. Memri supplies some excerpts from a 1998 interview of Yassin by Al-Quds. Asked whether he expected Israel to attempt to assassinate him, Yassin replied,

"I will be very happy if that happens. I wish they had done it already -- if they have the talent for it. The day in which I will die as a shahid [martyr] will be the happiest day of my life."

You have to wonder why, if he was so eager to be martyred, he never took the initiative to detonate himself as he encouraged so many others to do. Oh, well. I'm happy that he's happy.

The international community is not so pleased. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, for one, lamented the death of an "(elderly man) in a wheelchair." Is he for real? This nice old man was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, many of them Palestinians. Regardless of one's opinion of Israel's action, this sort of statement is unjustifiable.

Allison Sommer has a few words on the fatalism that's overtaken the Israeli public. How depressing.

Sorry about that little foray into global events. The world is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. On a completely different note, here is an interesting site on asexuality. It may or may not be relevant to the preceding discussion. I figured I'd let you decide.

Oh, yeah. Rav Uri tells us that when he checked on March 21st, KeshetJTS was alive and well. As of now, it seems to be alive but not very well. Stay tuned.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Berger has posted a response to Simcha's response to Berger's response to Simcha's response to Roth's teshuva. Berger states:

"I reject the (ostensible) compromise of 'only written under Divine inspiration and not dictated by God,' since this formulation is (a) banal, (b) inexact, and (c) lacking in any recognition of the mysterium tremendum which must accompany any discussion of the relationship between God and Torah. Matter-of-fact catechisms must not be the stuff of modern Jewish theology."

This is absolutely correct. I somewhat regret my attempt to reduce these complex ideas to simple statements in last Wednesday's post. Mostly, I was trying to convey that there is a middle ground between regarding the written Torah as "omniscient" and unassailable, and rejecting its authority entirely.

I am going to visit my family this weekend, so I won't be blogging for a while. When I return, I hope to move on to another topic. This discussion has been very interesting, but I don't think that anyone has or will change his or her mind. Also, I'm not the best person to be defending the Conservative approach to halakha. I don't want my ideas confused with the movement's ideology.

Of course, everyone should feel free to continue the discussion in the "comments." I may even respond :-).

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

If you read the "comments" on my posts regularly, you already know that Zackary Sholem Berger's "Anonymous Friend" now has a blog of his own. I would like to call your attention to the fact that he refers to me as the "self-proclaimed proponent of Apikorsus." He-he.

Seriously, I don't expect anyone with an Orthodox perspective on halakha to be persuaded by R. Simcha Roth's arguments. I do, however, hope that readers of all stripes will appreciate that R. Roth is a learned man who does care about halakha (as he understands it), and that his efforts are motivated by genuine concern for people in a very unfortunate position.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Since KeshetJTS seems to have disappeared from the face of the web, leaving most readers of this blog with no access to Rabbi S. Roth's teshuva, I've decided to post a few excerpts. Please bear in mind that, although this post is lengthy, I am ommitting a great deal; the original is 42 pages long.

A few disclaimers:

1. The content of this post is by nature sexually explicit.
2. For technical reasons, I've deleted the Hebrew text and included transliterations where Rabbi Roth neglected to do so. I've also made some changes in format.
3. I've replaced some footnotes with paranthetical citations and deleted others. Some are important, but it didn't make sense to take up so much space.
4. I've omitted the entire section on gays in the rabbinate. It shouldn't be too difficult to figure out what Rabbi Roth's position on the matter is.

Here are the excerpts:

This paper is not addressing the general issue of a halakhic attitude towards homosexual acts, but it is addressing itself to the specific needs of a religious gay person who identifies with the ideology and practices of Conservative Judaism and who wishes to live, learn, practice, and perhaps teach this tradition. There is, therefore, much in this paper that will not be acceptable to a secular gay rights activist. . . .

The term used in our classical sources to denote the major homosexual prohibition of the Torah is mishkav zakhur. This term is now loosely understood as being the equivalent of "homosexuality", but this is quite erroneous. Mishkav zakhur refers to one specific act alone and to no other. The Written Torah specifically prohibits mishkav zakhur twice:

"You shall not copulate with a man as one copulates with a woman: it is an abomination (Lev. 18:22).

"If a man copulates with another male as one copulates with a woman, both of them have acted abominably; they shall be put to death..." (Lev. 20:13).

Rambam (Hilkhot Issurei Bi'ah 1:14) gives the following definition of mishkav zakhur:

"When one male copulates with another male ... from the moment of [anal] penetration ... both are punishable by stoning..."

In modern times as well, this quasi anatomical definition is accepted. . .

If the Torah is prohibiting the specific act of anal penetration of one male by another; it follows that the two verses of the Torah are not a blanket prohibition of homosexuality. The gay male who scrupulously avoids anal penetration cannot be guilty of mishkav zakhur, and the opprobrium expressed in these verses cannot apply to him. . .

As we have seen, the act that the Torah prohibits is anal penetration of one male by another. For obvious anatomical reasons this cannot apply to females. This is the reason why there is no equivalent female homosexual act which would earn the participants either judicial death or excision. Nevertheless, homosexual acts between women were also forbidden by the sages. Their prohibition is based on a rabbinic interpretation of a verse in the Torah:

"You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws" (Lev. 18:3).

Rambam (Hilkhot Issurei Bi'ah 21:8) codifies as follows:

"For women to cuddle each other is forbidden as this is one of the 'practices of the land of Egypt'. However, even though the act is prohibited it is not punishable ... because there is no specific Torah prohibition and sexual intercourse is not possible. This is why [such women] are not prohibited to ... their husbands because of prostitution ... for there is here no such prostitution... A husband should prevent his wife from such practices by forbidding women known [to do such things] access to her and by [forbidding] her to go out to them."

Since it is not one of the arayot nor are there any judicial or social consequences there is no need for us to investigate halakhic implications of female homosexuality at this point, since they can be subsumed in the discussion of male homosexual practices other than mishkav zakhur and masturbation. However, we should note that it is significant that the prohibition of the sages seems to assume that the women involved in these activities are married (to men). . .

The Shulan Arukh states (Even ha-Ezer 1:1.):

"A man must marry a woman in order to procreate..."

Does this requirement, sequentially the first of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah, apply to gay males? . . .It would be cruel in the extreme to impose marriage on a man for whom any sexual encounter with a woman would be totally distasteful and probably a physical impossibility because of the constraints of his psychological and emotional complexion. It would be cruel not only to the man but also to the woman he marries. . . When a person's actions are influenced by a power beyond his control this is called "constraint", ones, by our sources. We shall return to the halakhic implications of 'constraint' later on in this paper. . .

Masturbation is termed in our classical sources hashatat zera. This means that the effect of the action is to expel semen for a purpose other than procreation and into a receptacle other than a womb. Masturbation is prohibited by the Palestinian Amora Rabbi Yoanan in the Talmud (Niddah 13a) and he bases himself on the death of Onan as described in the Torah (Gen. 38:10). The Shulan Arukh (Even ha-Ezer 23:1-2) . . . prohibits this activity in hyperbolic language. . .

If, in addition to mishkav zakhur, this activity also is denied the gay man he will be left with almost no physical means for the relief of sexual tension and for sexual expression, which will have possibly dire consequences, ranging between mental anguish, emotional instability and suicide [this claim is supported in a footnote]. . .

Despite the uncompromising language of the Shulan Arukh as quoted above there are halakhic possibilities that will permit a gay man sexual expression through masturbation. The most direct possibility is to follow the line of thought of Rabbenu Tam (Yevamot 12b s.v. Shalosh) that anyone who is exempt from the mitzvah of procreation is not bound by the prohibition against masturbation. Since we have accepted that gay men are exempt from the mitzvah of procreative marriage it would follow that they are not bound by the prohibition against masturbation. However, no other posek has taken this line of thought, and while Rabbenu Tam is certainly great enough to rely on as it were, it would be prudent also to search for another avenue of approach as "back up". In his commentary on that hyperbolic statement of the Shulan Arukh, Bet Shemu'el points out that the hyperbole in the statement is misleading. Sefer Hasidim (Siman 176) of Rabbi Yehudah he-Hasid had already pointed out that there were circumstances where not only was masturbation permitted but should be seen as preferable.

"One person asked whether someone whose sexual drive was getting the better of him and he was afraid that he might sin by copulating with a married woman or his menstruous wife or any other of the arayot that are forbidden to him whether he could masturbate so that he might not sin. The response was that in such circumstances he should masturbate, for if it is a married woman it is preferable that he masturbate rather than sin with the woman..."

In his commentary Hokhmat Shelomoh on that same paragraph in the Shulan Arukh, Rabbi Shelomoh Luria goes even further, and suggests that it might even be a mitzvah to perform a lesser sin in order to avoid a greater sin. . . Therefore, according to the thinking of Rabbi Yehudah he-Hasid, masturbation as an alternative to mishkav zakhur is to be condoned; and according to Rabbi Shelomoh Luria if the masturbation succeeds in preventing the sin of mishkav zakhur then it might even be regarded as a mitzvah! . . .

In spite of the above statements it is highly unlikely that any of the authorities mentioned intended the heter to be anything more than occasional, in time of acute temptation. Is it possible to see this heter as ongoing in homosexual circumstances? I believe that we can indeed say so, because it is but natural that a religious gay man will seek out a partner and a relationship. Under those circumstances the temptation of mishkav zakhur is a constant one, and the heter of masturbation is a constant need. The gay man's emotional health depends on it, and we should bear in mind that if both masturbation and anal penetration are denied him the religious gay man will in all probability forsake religious observance entirely. The wise posek too will "calculate the loss of a mitzvah against its reward and the reward of a sin against its loss". . .

The Torah stipulates:

"None of you shall come near anyone of his own flesh to uncover nakedness" (Lev. 18:6).

Rambam, basing himself on a very appropriate midrash in the Sifra (Aarei 13), states (Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Lo Ta'aseh 353) that this is a Torah command that requires everyone to maintain a complete physical distance from any possibility of contact with arayot. Thus Torah law would strictly forbid hugging, kissing and fondling someone such as a sister or aunt. (Indeed, a special exception had to be made to permit a man to have any kind of physical contact with his own mother!) This requirement does not seem to have been strictly enforced even in talmudic times. In the Gemara (Shabbat 13a) we read that one trunt Amora, Ulla, when returning from the Bet Midrash would kiss his sisters on their breasts! This is emended by the Gemara to "on their hands", but according to the law as stated by Rambam this would make no difference, since either limb is forbidden him! In his animadversions on Sefer ha-Mitzvot, after analyzing several sources, Ramban claims that Rambam is wrong, and that the prohibition he describes is only rabbinic, mi-de-rabbanan, and not mi-de-'orayta. . .

Even if Rambam is correct that this is prohibited by force of Torah law this would still mean that the gay person, acting under the constraint of his nature, would not be held culpable for not observing this commandment. If Ramban is correct that it is only mi-de-rabbanan then it is even easier to make this claim. We have already seen that under the circumstances to which we are relating even masturbation would be permitted as an alternative to mishkav zakhur. From there it would be a short step to apply the logic of a kind of reversed kal va-homer: if masturbation is permitted to prevent mishkav zakhur could not keruv basar (physical contact) be permitted for the same reason? . . .

We now approach the issues that are involved when two gay people do to each other what we have already seen above would be condoned when practiced by an individual as a "replacement activity". The basic problem here is whether inviting someone to participate in such acts constitutes "aiding and abetting," or "putting a stumbling block before the blind." Is it possible for a religiously motivated person to invite someone else to participate in an activity that is still technically sinful (even if condoned)? The classical place where this is discussed is in the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 6a-b), where the question is posed whether it is permitted to pass wine to a nazir - a person who had taken upon himself for a specific period of time the stringencies of not partaking of alcohol or cutting his hair. If the nazir drinks the wine he has committed a sin (by breaking his religious oath of abstinence). By passing the wine to him or selling it to him (even at his request) am I "aiding and abetting" him in a sinful act? The answer of the Gemara there is clear: you would not be aiding or encouraging him in his wrongdoing if he were going to do it any way. . .

What practical conclusions can we draw from the halakhic conclusions offered in Part 1? It would be very easy indeed to create a halakhic case for blanket prohibition of all homosexual activity. It would also be very cruel. Once Conservative rabbis are convinced that homosexuals are not responsible for their orientation, cannot control it, cannot ignore it and that it is not a pathological condition we should realise that we have a duty to "pull up the halakhic floorboards" to find a heter. We have done this in regard to kohen v'gerusha v'giyoret; we have also done this in regard of the aguna; we have done this too in regard to mamzer u'mamzeret; we have done this in regard to the halakhic status and role of women in general. We can do no less for the sincerely religious gay person than we have done for the others. Not to do so would be an act of halakhic cowardice. . .

[I]t is to the benefit of all concerned that we create a framework that will give ritual effect to the creation of same-sex couples and that this framework would not delegitimize the traditional heterosexual family. There are three main benefits: a reduction in the danger of AIDS and other life-threatening sexually transmitted diseases, a decrease in the incidence of promiscuity, and the ritualization of the relationship within an halakhic framework. In this regard there are two issues that must be scrupulously avoided. Firstly, under no circumstances can the creation of this bond of affection be considered to be kiddushin. . . Secondly, the financial rights of the woman within the marriage bond are secured by the Ketubbah, the marriage deed. This is a document in which witnesses testify to the fact that the husband has made financial provisions for his wife, provisions which, in theory, are to be actualized in the event of divorce or his dying before she does. Kiddushin between two free males or two free females is technically impossible. Nevertheless, it should not be too difficult to find aesthetic alternatives to these items which would be halakhically acceptable. In an addendum to this paper I provide a suggested ceremony, and I have added a few explanatory notes to that text. And it is entirely appropriate that such an effort be made. It is not only the practical issue of discouraging promiscuity because of STD's. Gays and lesbians feel the need for establishing a permanent loving relationship no less than straights. The paternal and maternal instinct is no less strong in gays and lesbians than it is in their heterosexual counterparts. Religious gays and lesbians want to celebrate and commemorate their life-cycle joys and sorrows within the framework of the religious kehillah just as straight people do. We should make the effort to find appropriate halakhic and communal avenues to facilitate these needs. . .

One objection that could be raised to the suggested arrangement for a commitment ceremony could be that the legitimacy of the bond is based in the halakhic presumption that the male couple will never engage in mishkav zakhur. . . This objection is a red herring. There is, in fact, no halakhic difference between the sin of mishkav zakhur and the sin of be'ilat niddah, copulating with a woman who has not bathed in a ritual bath after her last menstruation: both are hayyavei karet. It is commonplace that the overwhelming majority of Conservative married women do not visit the mikveh regularly (or at all!). Based on statistical probabilities, in the case of every marriage the presumption should be that the woman has not visited and will not visit the mikveh. Yet this fact does not deter even one Conservative rabbi from performing huppah-kiddushin for any such couple. We do not pry into what happens in the couple's bedroom after their marriage; the same should apply to a gay couple. . .

In his responsum of a decade ago Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff wrote: "Taken together, these data are sufficient for me to affirm confidently that we should no longer see homosexuality as a moral abomination. The tradition, in saying that it was, clearly assumed that sexual attraction to, and sexual intercourse with, people of the same gender were totally voluntary. We certainly know enough by now to assert that that is a factual error." Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has written:* "Religious people should finally get over their all-too-apparent homophobia and reverse the discriminatory policy which says that homosexuality is an aberration marked by God for special censure. Like heterosexual men and women, gays are God's children, capable of bringing light and love to a planet whose darkness is caused not only by sin but also misguided judgmentalism." Amen.

*In an article entitled "Dr. Laura Misguided On Homosexuality", June 2, 2000 / 28 Iyyar 5760.

Monday, March 15, 2004

One of the reasons I've been putting off the follow-up to last Wednesday's post is that a proper discussion of halakhic innovation would require actual, serious research. Instead of going the route of academic integrity (this is, after all, a blog), I've decided to sketch out my ideas without citations and without all the relevant examples. I hope that some of you can help me fill in the missing information over the next few days.

Okay, here goes:

I have an unfortunate tendency to express misgivings about my opinions before fully articulating them to begin with. Change and "manipulation" have been integral aspects of the halakhic process from the start. A number of aggadot reveal that the Rabbis understood their role to be innovative, not simply transmission or recovery of Sinaitic Oral Law. This does not mean, however, that there is no risk involved in innovation. Many proponents of halakhic change strike me as far too sanguine. At some point, one is faced with fundamental questions: Is there anything that cannot be changed? What is it that makes Judaism Judaism?

I'm going to set these abstract questions aside for a moment and focus on Rabbi Roth's teshuva. Two analogous Talmudic cases come to mind. One is the case of the ben sorer u'more, the rebellious son whose parents sentence him to stoning. The other is the case of the Hebrew slave, whose treatment is regulated by numerous biblical and rabbinic laws. In neither case do the rabbis of the Talmud eliminate the biblical rulings. What they do is introduce so many limitations on their application that they become completely unrealistic. The case of the rebellious son becomes so limited that the Rabbis ultimately state that such a case never occurred and never will. In the case of the Hebrew slave, they assert that "one who acquires a slave acquires for himself a master." A traditionalist might claim that the Rabbis were simply interpreting the text according to Divinely sanctioned methods. Their conclusions therefore reveal its true meaning. A more objective observer, however, would likely conclude that the Rabbis' interpretations were motivated by an internal sense of justice.

Similarly, Rabbi Roth does not eliminate the prohibition of homosexual intercourse. Instead, he limits it to anal intercourse between men, rendering other types of homosexual relationships permissible. There is support for this position in the halakhic sources. Rabbi Roth is "manipulative" only in that he chooses to favor certain sources over others.

But this is merely a justification based on precedent. A philosophical problem remains. Changing the law out of a sense of justice suggests that the Written Torah is morally deficient. Did the Rabbis believe this? Not likely. Frankly, I don't know how they dealt with these issues on an abstract level, and I don't see much point in speculating on the matter. Instead, I'd like to mention a few untraditional approaches taken by contemporary Jews.

Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform leaders, as well as a handful of people who call themselves "Orthodox," have come to accept the basic tenets of modern biblical criticism. This does not entail rejection of the Torah's Divine character, but it does call the nature of the Torah's Godliness into question. Some, believing that God is intimately involved in all human affairs, assert that the redacted Torah is no less complete and authoritative than it would have been had it fallen from heaven. Others view the creation of the Torah as one stage in a Divinely guided process, leaving room for improvement at later stages. More liberal thinkers assert that the Torah is simply one important manifestation of the human quest for holiness.

These are gross oversimplifications, but the general idea should be clear. I don't know exactly how Rabbi Roth understands revelation, but his approach to halakha is in keeping with the idea that the Torah is an unfinished human work. Ideally, the halakhic system should provide a framework for reinterpreting the old in light of the new.

If the Torah is viewed as the direct articulation of God's will for all time, our changed understanding of sexual orientation is irrelevant. If, however, it is viewed as the product of human beings in different contexts (albeit with some sort of divine influence), modern ideas and realities become significant. Until very recently, sex between men necessarily involved deviation from the norm of family life. Today, we recognize that certain people are not constitutionally suited for heterosexual marriage, but that those people can still form families. A homosexual relationship that doesn't involve abandonment of family life is indeed a new phenomenon.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

In honor of Pi Day, here is a pie recipe that won my sister great acclaim.

Why this is the best pie recipe in the world:
1. There's nothing like lots of fresh lemon to wake up your taste buds.
2. The sweet/tart combination is out of this world.
3. You can make it parve with no substantial sacrifice in flavor.
4. It comes out gorgeous every time.

I plan to blog about more serious matters after getting some work done. In the meantime, I wonder whether someone with broader knowledge of halakha than me can answer a question. In discussions of halakhic change, my husband often refers to the Orthodox position allowing deaf people to serve as witnesses in spite of an explicit rabbinic prohibition. Unfortunately, neither of us is certain of the reasoning behind that position. Can anyone explain?

Oh, yeah. Berger has posted a response to his friend's response to R. Simcha Roth's teshuva. Happy reading.

Friday, March 12, 2004

Mmm, cow for Parshat Para. (Thanks for the meat, Dad.)
Shabbat shalom.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

In the course of a search for easy desserts involving apples (we had a few that didn't make it into mishloach manot), I came across this apple crisp recipe from the Hon. Gaston Caperton, former governor of West Virginia. That's how I discovered the Gourmet Governors' Index. Pretty cute, huh?

I realize that you were all expecting something a bit less trivial than this, but I'm tired.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Zackary Sholem Berger has posted a friend's response to Rabbi Simcha Roth's teshuva on homosexuality. The response is worth reading if you're interested in the halakhic aspects of the issue. I don't have the expertise (or, at the moment, the time) to respond to each point in detail, but I would like to note an overall disparity between Rabbi S. Roth's approach to halakha and the approach taken by Berger's friend.

Rabbi Roth's teshuva is unabashedly ends-oriented. Its goal is to find room for homosexual relationships within halakha, not to present the sources objectively. This approach is grounded in the idea that, in the real world, halakha cannot and should not be an "objective," academic pursuit. Responsa should, rather, be guided by sensitivity to the needs of individuals and communities.

I approve of this approach because I don't believe that halakha is perfect. People like Berger's friend do, however, have solid grounds for disagreeing. It goes without saying that addressing halakhic issues creatively -- or, to put it more baldly, manipulating the system -- poses a threat to the integrity of Jewish tradition. This threat is all the greater within the Conservative movement on account of the rabbinate's failure to establish clear guidelines for change. CNonetheless, my vote is for flexibility over rigidity, particularly when the stakes are this high.

Monday, March 08, 2004

It has come to my attention that the Hebrew in my previous post does not display properly in Internet Explorer. I asked my techie husband what to do about it, and he suggested that I advise my readers not to use Internet Explorer. So there you have it.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Purim was fun. Megilla reading at egal is always just crazy enough without compromising people's ability to actually hear the megilla. DH and I dressed as each other, which was a little weird (I never thought I'd have to see my husband in drag), but at least the costumes were free.

This afternoon we hosted a Purim Seuda (holiday meal), which was dairy, enabling us to serve the Annual Outrage: single-malt scotch floats. (This year we used Glenmorangie and three flavors of ice cream.) There were more guests than we'd expected, and the food disappeared very quickly. But it was fun.

DH decided that he didn't like the Ohr Someyach Purim Kiddush, so he composed his own. This blessing is recited over both wine and scotch. A sip of wine is taken at each mention of the word "wine," and a sip of scotch is taken at each mention of the word "liquor." (God's name is, of course, used only in the two "real" blessings.)

הריני מזמן את פי לקיים מצוות עשה שנאמר על ידי חכמינו זכרונם לברכה: "מייחיב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי" (מגילה ז:).

כוס ישועות אשא ובשם ה' אקרא.
סברי! (לחיים!)

ברוך אתה ה' א-לקינו מלך העולם בורא פרי הגפן.
ברוך אתה ה' א-לקינו מלך העולם שהכל נהיה בדברו.

ברוך אתה ה' א-לקינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצוותיו ורצה שנהיה שיכורים כאבותינו ככתוב בתורתיך: "ויחל נח איש האדמה ויטע כרם. וישת מן היין וישכר" (בראשית ט:כ). ונאמר: "וירא א-לקים כי טוב" (בראשית א:י).

א-לקינו וא-לקי אבותינו רצה בשיכורנו, קדשינו במצוותיך ותן חלקינו בתורתיך כאמור: "ואתם תהיו לי ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש" (שמות יט:ו), כמו שכתוב: "כהן ונביא שגו בשכר נבלעו מן היין, תעו מן השכר, שגו בראה" (ישעיהו כח:ז).

שמחינו בישועתיך ככתוב: "אקחה יין ונסבאה שכר והיה כזה יום מחר גדול יתר מאד" (ישעיהו נו:יב).

טהר לבנו לרדף אחרי מצוותיך כאמור: "משכימי בבקר שכר ירדפו" (ישעיהו ה:יא).

תן יין ושכר לכלם ככתוב: "תנו שכר לאובד ויין למרי נפש. ישתה וישכח רישו ועמלו לא יזכר עוד" (משלי לא:ז).

זכינו לאכול ולשתות עם דוד עבדיך כאמור: "ויקרא לו דוד, ויאכל לפניו וישת וישכרהו" (שמואל ב' יא:יג).

ותתן לנו ה' א-לקינו באהבה את חג הפורים הזה, זמן שמחתינו מקרא קודש זכר לארור מרדכי וברוך המן. כי בנו בחרת ואותנו השקית מכל העמים. ופורים קדשך באורה ושמחה וששון ויקר הנחלתנו.

ברוך אתה ה' מקדש ישראל וסקוטלנד

Loose Translation:

I hereby prepare my mouth to fulfill the positive commandment that was issued by our sages, may their memory be blessed: "One is required to become so drunk on Purim that one is unable to distinguish between accursed-be-Haman and blessed-be-Mordecai" (B. Megilla 7:2).

I raise the cup of salvation and call out in the name of the Lord.
Hear! [Response: "L'chayim!"]

[Blessing over wine:] Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine.
[Blessing over scotch:] Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, at Whose word all things come into being.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who sanctified us with Your commandments, and desired that we become drunk as our ancestors did, as written in Your Torah:
"Noah, tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk" (Gen. 9:20). And it is written: "The Lord saw that it was good" (Gen. 1:10).

Our God and God of our ancestors, take pleasure in our drunkenness, sanctify us with Your commandments and grant us lots in Your Torah, as written:
"You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:6), as written: "Priest and prophet are muddled by liquor, confused by wine, dazed by liquor; their visions are muddled" (Isa. 28:7).

Cause us to rejoice in your salvation, as written: "I will take wine, and we will satiate ourselves with liquor, and tomorrow will be like today, only much better" (Isa. 56:12).

Purify our hearts to pursue your commandments, as written: "Those who rise early in the morning pursue liquor" (Isa. 5:11).

Grant wine and liquor to everyone, as written: "Grant liquor to the unfortunate and wine to the embittered. Let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their troubles no more" (Prov. 31:7).

Help us merit to eat and drink with David, your servant, as written: "And David called for him, and he ate before him and drank, and he made him drunk" (2 Sam. 11:13).

You, Lord our God, have with love granted us this festival of Purim, time of our rejoicing, as a reminder of "accursed-be-Mordecai and blessed-be-Haman." For You have chosen us and given us more to drink than any other nation, and You have allotted us this holy Purim day in light, joy, gladness, and honor (Est. 8:16).

Blessed are You, Lord, who sanctifies Israel and Scotland.

I hope that Naomi Chana will forgive all the paranthetical citations. Happy Shushan Purim!

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Hurrah! An informed review of The Passion by Sister Andrea!
Tomorrow is the Fast of Esther. The fast normally falls on the thirteenth of Adar (the day before Purim), but is moved to the previous Thursday when the thirteenth falls on Shabbat. (Don't be confused by the fact that this post is dated "Thursday, March 4th." The fast begins at sunrise.)

Those who enjoy making trouble should note that it is actually forbidden to fast on the thirteenth of Adar according to a 1st-2nd century Aramaic work called Megillat Taanit. The thirteenth of Adar, according to this book, is the "Day of Nicanor," a holiday commemorating the victory of the Hasmoneans over an obscure Greek official. If you read Aramaic, you can learn all there is to know about the "Day of Nicanor" right here.

(FYI, a critical edition of Megillat Taanit was recently published. I haven't had a chance to look at it closely, but I'm told that it's a very fine work.)