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why Orthodox Jews do what they do

Controversial Observations, Uncategorized September 17, 2013

Leaning in to Bat Mitzvah

Q. Ruchi, my daughter is becoming Bat Mitzvah, and while we love what you and your husband do, and the joy with which you approach Judaism, it is really important to us that our daughter read from the Torah for her bat mitzvah, and that her mom and female relatives be on the bimah as well. Can you help me understand why the Orthodox don’t do those things?

A. In super-Jewish tradition, I’m going to answer your question with some other questions.

1. For years, both the Reform movement, and, to a lesser extent, the Conservative movement, did not give girls and women the same status as boys and men on the bimah. Even today, some Conservative synagogues,while officially recognizing female clergy, simply do not hire female rabbis or cantors. Why?

2. Women in general are grossly underrepresented in this country in business and politics (yes, I’m reading Lean In, and loving it, by the way). Is there any particular reason for this? Or is just a hugely, embarrassingly widespread cultural black eye?

(Interesting side note: Sheryl Sandberg, who is Jewish, creates a fuzzy link in the beginning of her book between underrepresentation in Judaism for girls, as expressed by the religious perceptions of her old-school grandparents, and her desire to make things right for women – although Judaism has not yet appeared since as a factor in her life. But I’m only halfway through the book.)

3. There are some Orthodox synagogues, that, as matter of policy, do not allow ANY bar mitzvah boys to read from the Torah. Only experienced Torah readers are permitted to do this. In fact, entire Chassidic sects do not follow the practice, focusing the bar mitzvah prep instead on the laws the boy will be obligated in (mostly laying tefillin which will be a new practice for the young boy). Why?

I have no idea what the answers are to questions #1 and 2. I will leave that to those more knowledgeable than me in these areas. But the questions do deflate the original question somewhat, which seems to me to carry this implied message:

Everyone is egalitarian but the Orthodox Jew. Get with the program! Evolve!

Or maybe I’m oversensitive.

But that’s just a side point, really, because the real question remains. Why, oh why, can’t we just give a little and allow the sweet, Jewishly motivated bat mitzvah girl on the bimah so she can feel just as important and special as her male counterpart? Couldn’t we just bend the rules a wee bit?

Let me state this loud and clear: how tempting it would be for us, in terms of recruitment and customer satisfaction, to do just that. Not being able to “provide” the bat mitzvah most people want is the biggest thorn in our side. In fact, there would have to be a really, really good reason, one that is not changing, to get us to keep saying “no” – which, to all business views, has got to be the worst PR decision ever.

Let’s start with question #3 – why would a synagogue not allow boys to read from the Torah?


The reason is that halachah – the following of Jewish law, as codified in a variety of classic texts – is the benchmark of Orthodox living.  You may have come across this noun in a variety of Hebrew/English conjugations: halachic, halachically, etc. This is the most important thing to understand about Orthodox Jews and Orthodox shuls – they follow halachah.

They follow it with regards to mechitza. They follow it with regards to minyan – 10 adult Jewish males. They follow it with regards to what you read from the Torah when if it is Rosh Chodesh, a fast day, or someone has yahrtzeit. To how to cover the Torah and when. To who says the mi-sheberach and why. To who has priority with an aliyah on which day.

And they follow it out of the synagogue too. It governs what you eat, how you give charity, what you wear, how you disagree with a parent, how to light a yahrtzeit candle, how to shake a lulav, when to cut someone out of your life, whom to hire when two people want the job.

Halachah states that hearing the Torah reading each Saturday morning (oh, and Monday and Thursday mornings too) is an obligation for adult Jewish males. That means if they miss it, they better have a good reason, because God is going to ask them one fine day when they get upstairs. Obligation first, privilege and honor second.

The fact is that if there is a cute 13-year-old reading Torah, he will very likely make mistakes. It may become questionable if the the reading was kosher. All the people in the room may have reneged on their obligation. Yes, we take this stuff seriously, because we believe it really matters whether our obligation was discharged. That’s why we’re there, and that’s how we roll.

There is a rule in halachah that if someone is not obligated in a particular mitzvah, he or she is unable to discharge others via their performance. Example: in halachah, we are obligated to say a blessing before we eat food. If two people are eating challah, for example, one can say the blessing hamotzie, and the other can say “amen” and the former has discharged the obligation of the latter. They can both eat and enjoy. Dip it in honey or hummus or whatever floats your boat. However, a child cannot say hamotzie for an adult, because the child (under bar or bat mitzvah) is not obligated.

In fact, at my daughter’s bat mitzvah, she said the motzie aloud for everyone, and everyone said “Amen” and dug in – this was to demonstrate that it was her first opportunity to discharge the obligation of others via her new status.

This is one technical halachic reason that girls do not read from the Torah in an Orthodox, halachic service. They are not technically obligated and thus cannot discharge the obligation for others. There are some more interesting thoughts here, especially in the comment section.

But there are two more things I want to say on the subject.


I have a bar mitzvah coming up for my own son. He is not reading from the Torah for various reasons. Oh… how I wish I could celebrate his bar mitzvah the way I celebrated my daughters’ bat mitzvahs. Small party in our home for family and friends.

Nope, it’s not culturally accepted in my circles, so I’m not doing that (go ahead and call me a wimp) but honestly… I believe ALL bnei mitzvah have gotten too elaborate. And I’m not even talking about the party! I’m talking about hosting an entire weekend shebang, out of budget for so many, unheard of until recent history, for a child who is typically too young to get it.

Oh, I’ll enjoy it. It will be so wonderful to spend time with family and friends. But in the greater scheme of Jewish living, this is not the climax it’s given credit for.


It’s no secret that all streams of Judaism are asking the questions of how to keep their youth engaged. And bnei mitzvah specifically is studied in depth in heterodox movements in terms of retention, celebration, messages sent to the youth, and residual feelings of connection, and I applaud this. A recent New York times article included this one, almost breezy, dismissive line:

“Orthodox Jews, who have day schools and do not have equivalent retention problems, are not part of the initiative.”

Ok, whatever, New York Times. Orthodox Jews are not the only ones who have day schools, but you’ve done a good job with the fact, if not the reason. Why do Orthodox Jews not have equivalent retention problems?

Let’s use me as a case study. Not very scientific, I know. I grew up Orthodox. I was Bat Mitzvahed my way. My synagogue was not egal. Yet, I consider myself a joyful, knowledgeable and empowered Jew. I have access and drive and information and practice to learn and observe. If I don’t know something in Judaism, I know exactly how to find out.  In fact, many of my less knowledgeable friends, who turn to me for information and guidance, DID read from the Torah as girls.

I view the halachic structure in Judaism as an elaborate science. Many have tinkered with this piece or that to arrive at a final structure that is more in line with other values – even Jewish values. But if you tinker with science, things, sometimes unforeseen things, happen. Many view religion as an art and not as a science. That’s fine. There are many artful things about religion – in fact, often that’s what I love about it. But when there’s buy-in to the halachic process as a science, it is largely untinkerable.

Oh, we’ll work with bat mitzvah girls however we can within the rubric of halachah.  A havdalah service, for example, is a perfect solution, because halachically it does not require the presence of a minyan, whereas Torah reading does.  

I suppose you can look at my life and that of my Orthodox counterparts and cite other reasons for our strong identity and observance that have nothing to do with not reading from the Torah. But to me, it’s one and the same – the commitment to not change the basic halachic structure, even where, based on modern mores, it seems silly and even arcane. The long view of Jewish history bears out the New York Times’ observation, shared by many heterodox scholars, that Orthodox retention is in a league of its own, and I say halachah has everything to do with it.  And I don’t think it’s all about the Orthodox. I would add that to the degree that there is knowledgeable and joyous fidelity to halachah, no matter what, retention, identification, and affiliation are not far away.

In other words, us Orthodox gals are not who we are despite following halachah, but rather because of it. That not reading from the Torah as part of a bigger picture has made me more Jewish, not less.

And this is really why we will never change our minds about bat mitzvah, frustrating though it is. Even if it means, sadly, losing a few members along the way. Because to us, halachah is and always will be a package deal – for a very, very good reason.

Note: due to the sensitive nature of this post, I am considering allowing comments but not responding to them. Time will tell.

Controversial Observations, Uncategorized June 10, 2013

Why I’m Not A Pluralist

Pluralism:  a theory that there are more than one or more than two kinds of ultimate reality 

I wonder if Merriam Webster was a nice Jewish girl.

In a post a little while ago, Larry made an insightful comment explaining the difference between inclusivism and pluralism.  Inclusivism means I don’t think you’re right, but I will include and value you.  Pluralism means you’re right and I’m also right.  There are multiple ways to be right.

Now here’s my question.  Religious pluralism does not make any mathematical sense to me, because to me, religion is based on facts.  Either God did or didn’t write the Torah as we have it today.  Either the Torah was or wasn’t given at Sinai.  Either Moses did or didn’t perform those miracles.  If religion isn’t based on a belief in facts, then what is it based on?

Take other popular debates: vaccines either do or don’t cause autism.  Either baby carrots do or don’t have chlorine on them.  Drinking coffee either does or doesn’t make your teeth yellow.  You wouldn’t hear a pluralist say, “Well, I believe that vaccines cause autism, so that’s true for me, but if you don’t believe that, then it’s not true for you.  You’re right, and I’m right.”  That’s not a fact-based argument.

If you are an evolved religious debater, you will be thinking at this point, Ruchi.  Don’t you know that even within religious thought there is a plethora of ambiguity and pluralism?  Take Hillel and Shammai.  Weren’t they both right?  Aren’t there “shivim panim latorah,” 70 ways to interpret Torah, all of which are correct?

70 but not 71.  13 ways to interpret the Torah: not more.  Where Hillel and Shammai debated, each opinion revealed a different facet of the topic at hand, both of which might have been correct, but the halacha was always determined to be either one or the other.  Or sometimes one in private, one in public.  One in temple times, and one in diaspora.  One in ideal circumstances, one to rely upon only under duress. 

While I greatly appreciate that a non-Orthodox pluralist thinks that it is correct to drive on Shabbat and also correct not to, honestly it would make more sense to me if she thought I was wrong.

And that is why I’m not a pluralist.  

Controversial Observations, Uncategorized June 4, 2013

Christian Modesty, Jewish Modesty

My fellow blogger Kelly Youngblood, an occasional commenter here, just wrote this on Christian modesty in terms of women’s dress.  Modesty actually includes a lot more than how women dress, but that’s what we’ll focus on for today.  I’ll wait for you to read it.  Hmm, hmm.  La la la.  K, are you done?  Good.

A number of similarities and contrasts struck me while reading it.

First, one of the main things Kelly laments about Christianity is “there is a broad range of what modesty may mean, and so the admonition to ‘be modest’ is generally unhelpful.”  Of course I found this interesting, since Judaism is VERY specific (to the dismay of many) about what modesty means.  Specifically, collarbones, elbows, knees, and everything in between, ought to be covered.  Nothing that is tight and form-fitting, or screaming for attention.

Next, she mentions that “modesty often tends to be about being covered up, but if that were the
case, then we should just all walk around in bathrobes.  I can’t think
of anything more covered up than that.”  I have learned in Judaism that women were created with the desire to look beautiful, and that this is a natural and honorable aspect of being a woman.  We should and must feel pretty, without being provocative.  So, clear one – no bathrobes.  Modesty is not just about covering up, it’s about allowing our inner loveliness and refinement to emerge without distractions.

She also discusses that “women are often told to dress modestly in order that they don’t cause
their Christian brothers to sin by causing them to lust after the
women.  Men are not warned in the same way…”  Interestingly, in Judaism women are warned more, although men certainly are as well, about HOW they look; but men are warned more, although women are as well, about WHAT they look at, and how they look at things.  In other words, men are cautioned more about objectifying women, and women are cautioned more not to allow themselves to be objectified.  In no way does this remove blame from the other gender – both are warned.  Of course, men could be objectified and women could objectify – but typically it goes the other way.

Finally, Kelly brings up the valid ideas that envy/objectification exists everywhere, so really, can you ever stop or avoid it?  The answer to that is that each person has to work on his own arena of fault.  If you tend to objectify people or be envious of what they show to the world, get a grip.  Could it ALSO be their fault, for flaunting?  Yup – that’s their arena of fault, not yours.

Thanks, Kelly, for getting me thinking about all these things.

Uncategorized May 28, 2013

Unlit Candles

Last night I had a nightmare.

It was Friday afternoon and my Shabbos candles were all prepared.  But I was busy doing other things and lost track of time.  I finally, panic-stricken, looked at my watch and noticed that it was 7:38 pm.  I asked my friend Rivki Silver, “What time is shkia (sundown)??”  But she just looked at me sorrowfully and shook her head from side to side.  I then saw that her candles were lit, understood that it was already Shabbos, and realized that my hands were still busy with non-Shabbos activity.
I started to cry, gazing at the pathetic sight of my unlit and forgotten candles, overwhelmed with loss, grief, and regret.  I could never redo this moment.  Never.  I woke up, still making crying sounds, flooded with relief that, indeed, it was only a dream.

Uncategorized May 17, 2013

Rav, Rabbi, Rebbe

Q:  Is it too sensitive to ask how the
‘veneration’ of Chasidic rebbes (or just Chabad? I don’t know) is
different than non-Chasidic groups? Is that what defines Chasidic Jews
as Chasidic? Are there some without ANY rebbe? Do non-Chassidic Os
venerate their rabbis? And how is a rebbe different than a rabbi? Which
is what in relation to a rav?


A.  My personal (non-Chassidic) relationship with my rabbi is described here.  In Chassidic communities, the whole structure of the community centers around the Rebbe (pronounced reh-buh).  He is venerated, respected with awe, trust, and love, and consulted on major and minor decisions.  He is approached for a blessing before travel, before business dealings, and before matchmaking one’s children.  He is approached for prayers and blessings in times of crisis, before a medical procedure, and when marriages falter.  He is honored at every milestone, wedding, bar mitzvah, and holiday.

Where the Rebbe is no longer alive, and no successor appointed, as with Chabad or Breslov, the deceased Rebbe is still venerated in memory and via his teachings as the core place of inspiration for the Chassidus (Chassidic sect).

It is a central part of being Chassidic, but it’s not the only thing that defines Chassidic living.  Insularity and eschewing of secular culture is another major factor, as well as joy, passion and song.

Chabad is different in that its Rebbe (called “the reh-bee” by the more culturally American adherents or “the reh-buh” by its more Chassidic-oriented adherents) passed away around 15 ago and, childless, did not appoint a successor (as is usually the practice).  That’s how Chabad came to be a Chassidus with no living rebbe.

Non-Chassidic Os definitely venerate their rabbis but not to the same degree.  Typically it would be either their congregational or community rabbi (called a “rav“) or a rabbi from their educational years at yeshiva (called a “reh-bee“).  All of them, in English, are rabbis.

Plurals (I find a lot of people use term one when they mean term two):

1. Rebbeim (ra-bay-im): plural for day school/yeshiva teacher rabbis
2. Rabbanim (ra-buh-nim): plural for congregational or community rabbis
3. Rebbes (reh-buzz): plural for Chassidic rabbis

Uncategorized April 22, 2013

Jew Me Down

When I learned of Senator Dennis Johnson’s slur while debating a bill, I noticed something weird.

Most of my Orthodox friends were not as shocked or outraged as my non-Orthodox friends.

At first I wondered if Senator Johnson were perhaps unaware of the meaning of the slur.  For example, I used the term “gypped” until recently, having been totally clueless that this term is a pejorative against Gypsies (Roma).  I was likewise unaware, until recently, that “midget” is derogatory while “dwarf” is preferred, and that the Deaf community prefers Deaf with a capital “d.”

But when I watched the Senator’s weak apology, this explanation seemed unlikely.

So why am I not shocked or outraged?  Mostly, because I am very “out” about my Judaism and am therefore totally aware, and even expect, to some extent, anti-semitism.  I remember my grandparents telling me how some of their best Hungarian and Polish neighbors turned on them with a vengeance during the Holocaust.  In taking a long view of Jewish history, this is the norm rather than the exception.

Do I think that Senator Johnson hates Jews?  Nah.  But neither do I fool myself into thinking that we’re well-liked out there in the world.  Yes, even in America, and yes, even today.  I would term it begrudging acceptance, for the most part.  And I am aware that in the heterodox community, this is not a very popular view.  Hence the shock and outrage anew each time a politician or celebrity slips in public with an anti-Jewish slur.

There’s a value to the shock and outrage, though.  I think it draws us together as a people and reminds us that we are different.  As you know, I think this a good thing.

In this world, there are some philo-semites and there are some anti-semites.  The difference arises in your view of which category most of the world falls into.  

What do you think?