Modern Orthodoxy: Definitions and Insights
By: Rabbi J. Simcha Cohen
A popular contemporary rabbinic concern is to seek the essential quality that marks Modern Orthodoxy (MO) as a unique form of Torah Judaism.
In the middle ages theologians analyzed Judaism to assess its essential nature. Their concern was to locate a quality that should it be missing, then Judaism would not exist. A modern example of such an inquiry would be to seek the essential aspect of a car. A car even without air conditioning or radio is still a car. Yet, should a vehicle not have a motor, then it would no longer be deemed a car. What is, therefore, essential to Modern Orthodoxy?
Some have suggested that Chesed (kindness, charity, caring for others), may be essential to MO. That is true, but it is definitely not unique to MO. Many diverse sections of Jews and even Gentiles hold the view that kindness is essential to their way of life.
Anyone hospitalized in New York City will attest to the wonderful service of Satmar women who provide kosher food to patients free of charge. I still recall one woman who travelled with two different busses for over an hour each way to bring kosher food graciously to my wife. It was the Yartzeit of her husband and she wanted to observe a Mitzvah of Chessed on the Yartzeit. I have known Gentiles who were magnificent in making kindness an integral aspect of their lifestyle. Accordingly, the inquiry should not necessarily be to seek an essential characteristic but, rather, a unique quality that marks it as different from other forms of Judaism. It is necessary, therefore, to develop a primary definition of the uniqueness of a Torah observant Jew and then note the special emphasis of the MO.
It is well known that there is a Beracha (blessing) to be recited upon meeting a great scholar. Of interest is whether this Beracha may be recited upon meeting a Jew who, for example, has won the Noble Prize for his outstanding scholarship? This question many years ago was the subject of a Ma’amar by HaGoan HaRav Yitzchok Hutner (zt’l), the Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Rabbainu Chaim Berlin. He suggested that a careful reading of the terminology of the Shulchan Aruch indicates that it is not proper to recite this Beracha over a Jew. The Shulchan Aruch (SA) states, “Should one see wise Gentiles who are scholars in secular knowledge, one says, blessed be He… who has given from His wisdom to human beings.” (SA, Orech Chayyim (OC) §224:7) Note the specific terminology of the SA. It specifically limits this Beracha to Gentiles who are knowledgeable in secular wisdom. Apparently, Jews who are masters of secular wisdom are not to receive this Beracha. Also, Gentiles who excel in Torah studies also would not be granted a Beracha. Why?
In dealing with Berachot (blessings), there is a guiding principle of primary and secondary purpose (Ikar V’tafel). For example, a blessing for spice is only recited when the spice was originally utilized for the purpose of providing fragrance. Should the spice however have another purpose then even if it provides a pleasant fragrance, one does not recite a Beracha upon enjoying its fragrance. The fragrance that commands a Beracha must emanate from its essential purpose. (SA, OC §217:2) So too contends HaGoan HaRav Hutner relates to blessings over people. The prime purpose of the Jew is to learn Torah. This is the goal of his existence. Everything else, including secular scholarship or scientific knowledge is of a secondary value to the Jewish soul. It may be important. It may even be vital to life, but it is still secondary to Torah. As such, a Jew is not granted a Beracha unless he excels in his primary role, Torah. Likewise, the same logic compels the same response when relating to a Gentile. A Beracha is not operational should the Gentile excel in Torah for that is not his primary role in life. (Pachad Yitzchok—V’Zot Chanukah, Ma’amar 9:2 and 9:6)
Thus, Torah is the distinctive character of the Jew. Not prayer, not Chessed, but Torah. This dynamically suggests that the uniqueness of MO Judaism must reside in its formulation of Torah. In other words, is the Torah of the MO Jew uniquely different from the Torah of the Yeshiva or Hassidic world?
At issue is whether Halacha may be ruled differently due to distinctly different orientations? The proper response is definitely yes. In fact, MO has an approach to Halacha that differs from the approach of the Yeshiva and Hassidic world. (In reality it has more traditional roots than the orientation of the Yeshiva and Hassidic world.)
Several years ago, Rabbi Shalom Klass (z’l), publisher of the Jewish Press, sent me a copy of a ruling of Rav Henkin (zt’l), former author of the Ezrat Torah Luach and a major Posek of American synagogue Jewry. The issue was in the event that the Mishna Berura and the Aruch HaShulchan differed, who should one follow; the Mishna Berura or the Aruch HaShulchan? Rav Henkin ruled that one should not follow the Mishna Berura, but, rather, the ruling of the Aruch HaShulchan. Why? The Mishna Berura, known as the Chofetz Chaim was the Tzaddik of the generation. The Tzaddik of the generation should not be the decider of Halacha for such a person will have a proclivity to be stringent. So true!
In previous generation in Europe, the Rav who decided Halacha for the community at large, generally was lenient. In the Hassidic and Yeshiva spheres the custom was to be stringent. Anyone learning the Mishna Berura notes how he generally suggests a compromise solution that favors stringency. His argument generally is why be involved in a doubtful situation. Be stringent and observe all positions. The Aruch HaShulchan deals with questions on the basis of what is the realistic Halacha and generally does not suggest a compromise. Being lenient does not mean to violate Halachic standards. It is instead an orientation when ruling for the community at large. It is a recognition that a Halachic decision is not a pavlovian extremist position.
It is interesting to note that our sages did not generally assume that Halacha must be ruled L’hachmir (stringently). The Talmud, for example, discusses the source for the position that women are obligated from the Torah to recite Kiddush on Friday night. It notes that there are two Biblical commands pertaining to Shabbat. “Zachor” [Remember the Shabbat, Exodus 20:8], and “Shamor” [Guard or observe the Shabbat, Deut.5:12]. The former is the Mitzvah of Kiddush and the latter relates to all the negative commands of Shabbat. The Talmud rules that “Whoever is included in the command to “guard the Shabbat,” is also included in the command “to remember the Shabbat.” Since women are obliged to observe all the negative commands of Shabbat, they are also included in the positive command to recite Kiddush. Accordingly, even though Kiddush is a Mitzvah observed in a specific time frame and women are not obligated to observe such Mitzvot because of the special Biblical relationship of “Zachor” to “Shamor,” they are required to recite Kiddush. [Berachot 20b]
Of interest is the fact that the relationship of “Zachor” to “Shamor,” could have been interpreted differently. Instead of saying that whoever was obligated in “Shamor,” was also obligated in “Zachor.” The Talmud could have said, whoever is not obliged to observe “Zachor,” was also not obliged to observe “Shamor.” Since women were not required to recite Kiddush for it was a Mitzvah occurring only in a specific time frame [Zman Gerama], they also were not obliged to observe the negative commands of Shabbat. The reason this lenient method of interpreting the relationship of the verses was not expounded was, say our commentaries, due to the general accepted rule that in a concern for a relationship of Biblical verses and Hekesh [linkage of verses], only the stringent interpretation is utilized and has Halachic merit.
The following question was posed to HaRav Akiva Eiger (z’l): What is the meaning of the general rule that when interpreting Biblical verse-relationships, only the stringent position is accepted? Is it because such is the essential rule for interpreting verse relationships? Or, is it based on the general concept that in matters of doubt relating to Biblical Mitzvot one is stringent [Safek D’oraita L’chumra]. HaRav Akiva Eiger’s position was that the stringency was due to the very nature of the rule and Mesora of interpreting verse-relationships and not due to doubt. [Kovetz Responsa, Rabi Akiva Eiger, Volume II, Teshuvot V’Chidushai Rabbainu Akiva Eiger, Number 17] (According to the position that women are obligated to recite Kiddush simply because of doubt in a Biblical Mitzvah, as posed to Rav Akiva Eiger, it would not be proper for women to recite Kiddush for men who are obligated to perform the Mitzvah without any questions pertaining to the status of the obligation itself. To extent that HaRav Akiva Eiger ruled against this position, it would appear that women may recite Kiddush for men.)
What is obvious is that in matters other than the tradition of a Hekesh, there is no Mesora to be stringent. Thus a penchant to be lenient for the community at large, is not a violation of Halacha nor a deviation from common practice. Yet, contrary to Hassidim and B’nai Yeshiva it is unique to present day Ashkenazi MO deciders of Halacha. It should be noted, however, that Sephardic deciders of Halacha,especially Hagoan HaRav Ovadya Yosef, traditionally rule leniently on Halachic matters. To Sephardim being lenient in Halacha is their basic mode and guide for P’sak Halacha. (See Jewish Ideas and Ideals,Min Hamuvchar, “Models of Sephardic Leadership” by Rabbi Marc Angel, see also MiMaran Ad Maran” by Rabbi Benny Lau wherein the title of chapter 5 is “To be lenient and not stringent”)
Example (I) Sefirat Ha’Omer
At issue is the question whether one may recite S’firat HaOmer with a Beracha at sunset [Sh’kiah], or must one await the latter time designated as T’zait Hakochavim. The Chai Adam explicitly rules that according to the Halachic position that the Mitzvah of Sefirat Ha”omer is but rabbinic in nature, it is permitted ab initio [L’chat’chila], to recite Sefirat Ha’omer from the time of Bain Hashmashot [twilight/sunset]. (Chai Adam, Klal §130:6) Of interest is that the Chai Adam overtly ruled that the Mitzvah of Sefirat Ha’omer is only a rabbinic obligation, for in contemporary times, we have no ritual of cutting or bringing the Omer. (Klal §130:1) Though the Mishna Berura clearly states that the majority of Halachic authorities maintain that Sefirat Ha’omer is only a rabbinic Mitzvah in our times, he concludes however, that it is proper to recite Sefirat Ha’omer at night [Tzait Hakochavim], and not at Bain Hashmashot for it is best not to be involved in performing Mitzvot at doubtful times such as Bain Hashmashot. (Mishna Berura §489:14) The difficulty is that since the overwhelming number of Halachic scholars contend that the Mitzvah is rabbinic, according to Halacha one may actually make a Beracha L’chat’chila at sunset. The Yeshiva and Hasidic schools of thought who religiously observe all the stringencies of the Mishna Berura would not dare to recite the Sefirat HaOmer blessing prior to the latter time.
On the other hand, a MO rabbi would heed the ruling of the Chai Adam in this case and not that of the Mishna Berura. The main issue for the MO rabbi is what is the basic Halacha according to proper research and not simply to be stringent for the sake of following all positions.
There is a famous anecdote on this matter. It is told that the Vilna Gaon was asked to wear also Rabbainu Tam’s Tefillin as well as Rashi’s. The argument presented was that one should wear both sets of Tefillin in order to observe the Mitzvah according to all Halachic positions. The response of the Vilna Gaon was that to observe all positions it was necessary to wear almost sixty-four different pairs of Tefillin.
Example (II) Wine and Banquets
It appears that even so-called MO organizations slavishly follow stringent Halachic rulings that seem to be contrary to logic and normal contemporary life. Not too long ago, Rabbi Marc Angel, Founder and Director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals planned a reception at a kosher restaurant for a major donor and his family together with a number of friends of the Institute. In order to enhance the event, a musician was engaged to play background music during dinner. This last seemingly innocent accoutrement was deemed by the Kashrut certifying organization of the restaurant as a violation of Halacha due to the fact that wine was served. As such, it was claimed that that the restaurant would lose its certificate of Kashrut in the event that live music would take place. To support this position, one of the rabbis of the Kashrut agency cited the Shulchan Aruch Orech Chayyim §560:3, wherein it states that subsequent to the Churban HaBayit [destruction of the Temple], the sages decreed that one should not listen to live music at an event that serves wine. Accordingly, any attempt to have live music during a reception wherein wine was served at a Kosher restaurant would be a violation of Halacha and would mandate the Kashrut agency to remove its Kashrut certification. Live music with the availability of wine at banquets may only be permitted at the performance of a Mitzvah such as a wedding or Sheva Berachot.
Of concern is whether this is a correct reading of the Shulchan Aruch? Also, is such a prohibition relevant and operational in contemporary society? What does the Shulchan Aruch actually say?
The Shulchan Aruch states that as a result of the destruction of the Holy Temple, the sages decreed a number of ordinances to manifest a degree of sadness and mourning. One such decree was the prohibition to listen to live music. The Rama limited the prohibition. He contended that this general (year-round) prohibition applied only to people who awoke in the morning and retired at night to the accompaniment of music (i.e. kings). In addition, the Rama noted that those in attendance at a Bet Mishteh (a banquet party), were also included in the ban against music. The Mishna Berura ruled that the latter position of the Rama would extend the ban on music to even those who are not accustomed to daily listen to music. The prohibition was operational due to the presence of wine at the meal. (OC §560:3, Mishna Berurah §560:12)
A logical conclusion would be that one who does not listen to music daily and who does not drink wine (or attend such banquets), would not be included in the general ban against live music enacted by the sages to recall the Churban HaBayit. To this HaGoan HaRav R. Moshe Feinstein (zt’l) demurs. He rules that even the Rama would prohibit Jews from attending a public musical event throughout the year for it is a form of excessive Simcha prohibited because of the Churban. To the extent that the rabbis imposed a ban against music during Sefira (and the nine days), one must logically assume that such a ban would be above and beyond that which is normally prohibited due to the Churban. Since a public musical event is prohibited throughout an entire year, the extra stringency imposed for the nine days and Sefira must relate to music played even within the confines and privacy of one’s home. (Iggrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah Volume II §137)
This ruling of HaGoan HaRav Moshe, as well as the popular Kashrut agency’s refusal to grant Kashrut certification to restaurants that have live music and wine, appears bizarre and certainly not relevant to modern Orthodox contemporary lifestyles.
According to HaGoan HaRav Moshe, it would be forbidden to attend a concert throughout the year. To contend that the multitudes of observant Jews that do attend musical events are violating Halacha and therefore classified as sinners is simply not a proper orientation and is difficult to accept. Perhaps, to HaGoan HaRav Moshe, whose creative mind and Neshama were totally immersed in sacred Torah, such a view could be understood. However, to the vast number of Torah Jews who find music a positive Kosher form of entertainment, such a ruling cannot represent general Halachic practice. It certainly appears shocking to deem Torah Jews who attend a symphonic concert as Halachic sinners.
The position to remove certification from any restaurant that allows live music to be played at meals that also serve wine may also be a stringent misreading of Halacha. Indeed, the Shulchan Aruch never mentions a ban against music at a meal. It explicitly states that the ban occurs at a “Bet Mishteh.” A literal translation is not a banquet but “A house of drinking.”
The Mishna Berura in his notes titled Shaar HaTzion cites great rabbinic sages who contend that the ban against live music referred specifically to an ancient custom to serve only wine accompanied by music. In other words, no food was served at all. Now the term Bet Mishteh makes sense—it was a drinking party. Notably, the Mishna Berura explicitly states that in the event one serves food together with wine and music one should not protest the event.
It is apparent that the Kashrut agency accepts the Mishna Berura’s clarification that Bet Mishteh is prohibited to have live music due to the presence of wine yet rejects the Mishna Berura’s suggestion to not protest the matter by denying Kashrut certification to those who do indeed, have live music and wine. As such, in light of the Mishna Berura’s request not to protest those that serve wine at meals accompanied by music, the Kashrut agency’s position appears quite onerous and not so clearly backed by Halacha. Harav Henkin’s ruling (previously noted), that communal deciders of Halacha should not necessarily tend to be stringent should have been the proper Halachic guide. Also, it is clear that the Kashrut agency did not even recognize that the purpose of the event was to support a Torah institute. That very fact should have swayed them to grant permission. Indeed, support of Torah is always deemed a Mitzvah.
Based upon the above consideration that the original ban due to the Churban was against music combined with a drinking party, we may understand what extra prohibition was added to be operational during Sefira and the Nine Days. The rabbis may have for the days of Sefira and the Nine Days merely added a ban against music with meals. Namely, not just music with drinking parties was prohibited. Also, the rabbis may have outlawed during these periods of time all public musical events, even those without any food or drink. Of interest is that the rabbis may never have forbidden music to be heard in the privacy of homes. (I still recall being told that when HaGoan HaRav Hutner was driven by one of his students and music was on the radio during the nine days, he instructed the driver who attempted to turn off the radio that it was not necessary to do so.)
Example (III) Standing or Sitting
The Rama rules that all should stand when the Chazan repeats the Amida. (OC §124:4) The Mishna Berura notes that all should stand, pay attention to the prayers of the Chazan and are deemed as if they actually are praying themselves. (OC §124:20) Of interest is that the custom of HaRav HaGoan R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (zt’l), was to sit when the Chazan repeated the Shmoneh Esrai. He, moreover, noted that the Minsker Gadol believed that the ruling of the Rama to stand was contrary to common Halacha. It is well known that the generally accepted instructions for the Machzor are that all should stand for the recitation of the Vidui on Yom Kippur. This takes place during the role of the Chazan to repeat the Amida. To instruct the congregation to stand, suggests that prior to this prayer all sat. Rav Auerbach concludes that except for the practices in the Litvisher Yeshvot (and the Mishna Berura), who followed the ruling of the Rama, the common practice was to be seated. Also the Ari HaKadosh is reputed to have sat during the repetition of the Amida. (V’ahlaihu lo Yibol, Volume I, Customs of HaRav Hagaon R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, 91) In other words, the decision of the Mishna Berura was a custom observed by the Yeshiva world but not necessarily by the Rabbonim and general community. Yet, when one asks whether one should stand, the so-called official response is to proclaim the view of the Mishna Berura.
The Torah world of the Yeshivot and Hassidic circles adopted the stringent rulings as a normal Halachic pattern. The MO Halachic orientation is the old-time communal orientation to rule on the basis of realistic Halacha and not stringency built upon stringency. The MO will not be Machmir [stringent] simply as a rule of law.
(My theory is that the generation of the Shoah lost a good percentage of Shomrai Torah. Many defected due to loss of faith due to the Nazi persecutions and others due to economic reasons. My mother (zt’l), was born in America. She recalled that during the depression the word by many jobs was “If you do not come to work on Saturday do not come back on Monday.” Many Jews would go from week to week taking on new places of employment. After some time, they could not hold out anymore .To feed their families they worked on Shabbat. In Chicago, for example, many synagogues had large numbers of Jews who prayed on Shabbat at early Minyonim. Why? After prayers, they went to work. In such a situation, I believe the Yeshiva leadership assumed the role of father-surrogate of their students. I remember once hearing HaGoan HaRav Hutner claiming “students are orphans in the lifetime of their parents.” The Roshai HaYeshiva assumed they were the father-surrogates of students and instilled in them that the method of the Mishna Berura was the way to follow Halacha. They preached stringency and altered the proper role of Halachic deciders. Stringency became the mode and lenient communal Halacha was downgraded. They almost succeeded for synagogue rabbis generally did not present their alternate claim to Halachic validity. Yet, the Halachic approach of the MO is more in-line with traditional Halachic guidelines than that of the Yeshiva and Hasidic leaders.)
Example (IV) Reciting Korbanot
The Mishna Berura states (OC §48:1): When the Gemara notes that “whoever engages in the study of the passage dealing with the sacrifice of the burnt offering…,” it refers to “engagement in its study in order to understand the details involved in the sacrifice and not merely saying the words.” Thus, without understanding what the Hebrew words mean, does not in any way provide the Zechut [merit] of being deemed as if one brought a sacrifice. There is no reward for merely reciting Korbanot.
The Aruch HaShulchan however, has a different approach. He states (OC §48:1) that “whenever the relevant passages are read [Korim], it is deemed as if a sacrifice was brought.” At no time does he even suggest that it is necessary to study or comprehend the sacrificial passage.
The distinction between the Mishna Berura and the Aruch HaShulchan may be as follows: The Magen Avraham points out (OC §50:2) that there is a major difference between the Mitzvah of studying Torah and that of prayer [Tefila]. Torah must be understood. If it is not understood, no Mitzvah of Torah learning takes place. Prayer on the other hand, is valid even without the praying person’s comprehension. As long as the intention is proper, meaning that one has Kavana, understanding is not essential because Hashem knows the true intentions of the person who is praying.
The Mishna Berura may be of the belief that it is the Mitzvah of Torah study that grants a person who learns the passages of Korbanot the reward of bringing a Korban. As such, since the main factor is Torah, one must truly understand the passage in order to reap the benefit of Torah study. Indeed, one who has no understanding of the Korbanot passages may perhaps have no reason for reciting them since he would not comprehend the meaning of the recital.
The Aruch HaShulchan would be of the view that the recitation of the Korbanot passages is a form of prayer that does not mandate understanding what one recites. Accordingly, as long as a person has the proper intentions, that person may enjoy the benefits even without having an idea of the meaning of the verses. The reward is granted to anyone who just recites the Korbanot passages.
Regardless of the rationale for the different views, it is apparent that according to the Mishna Berura’s ruling, many who lack understanding of the Korbanot would simply have no value in reciting the section of Korbanot each day. This is one case of the Mishna Berura’s rulings that is simply not followed.
Example (V) Minimum Matzah at the Pesach Seder
A glaring example of heaping one extreme law upon another is the case of Matzah on Pesach.
The Shulchan Aruch rules that to observe the Matzah Mitzvah it is necessary to eat an amount of an olive [Zayit], which is deemed equal to one-half of an egg. (OC §486:1) The Noda B’Yehuda contended that the eggs in his time were much smaller than the eggs in the era of the Talmud. Accordingly, one should double the egg size for an accurate measurement of the Zayit. The Mishna Berura ruled that this stringent measurement should be used. (OC §486:1) Rav Moshe Shternbuch notes that for practical concerns this custom means that one should eat 30 grams or the size of a whole machine Matzah. (Haggada of Pesach p.42, rule 5) To the extent that there is an issue as to whether one should eat a Zayit from the whole Matzah or from the broken Matzah, the compromise solution is to eat a Zayit from both the whole and the broken Matzah. (Mishna Berura, OC §476:9) Add to this the requirements for Korach and the Afikoman, the amount of Matzah ingested is quite considerable. Was this the Minhag [custom] of Klal Yisrael?
Of pragmatic concern is that many who have experienced Pesach Sedarim by Hassidic Rebbes and Rabbonim report that they handed-out very small pieces of Matzah [shirayim] to those in attendance at the table. In addition, when requested to remember Pesach Sedarim in their own homes many recall that the amount of Matzah given was but a broken part of a Matzah. All such cases indicate that the Matzah Mitzvah was observed by eating less than the current popular definition of a Zayit. Were all such instances based upon an ignorance of the basic Halacha? Are we to assume all such situations were violations of the minimum requirements of the Matzah Mitzvah? Who remembers coming to a Seder with a chart indicating the minimum to eat?
Of interest is that HaRav Shternbuch explicitly notes that that the custom of doubling all the minimum requirements was not accepted in all places. (Haggada on Pesach, references p.43) Plus of course there is the tradition that Rav Chaim Volozner (zt’l) considered the requirement to be the small size of an olive. Yet, many contend that the present generation is more careful and scrupulous than previous generations. What a shame to so belittle the observance of the previous generation. The difficulty is that the new requirements are so popular that anyone eating less than the doubling and further doubling of the requirement is viewed as not observing the Mitzvah, Chaval.
Example (VI) Synagogue Weddings & Weddings Under the Stars
The Rama notes that “a Chuppa should be performed under the heavens (outside) as a good sign [L’siman Tov].” (SA, Even HaEzer §61:1) Accordingly, the practice has been to hold the Chuppa outside under the stars of the heavens as a sign of blessing. To meet this requirement, a number of synagogues and catering halls have cut-out a portion of their ceiling which is opened at weddings to accommodate those that do not wish to forgo the blessing of having a wedding under the heavens. I recall a wedding of a prominent Hassidic family held at a luxurious Beverly Hills hotel. The family and guests were attired with beautiful gowns, jewelry and the highest fashion of Shaitels. The Chuppa was planned to be outside. What was unique was that a torrential rain took place. This did not deter anyone from changing the location of the wedding. As such, the entire assemblage of participants at the ceremony was totally drenched; the bride, groom Rabbonim and a number of guests. Is this the Halacha? Would a directive to hold the wedding indoors have been contrary to Halacha?
Of great interest is the opinion of HaRav Samson Raphael Hirsch (zt’l), the champion of Orthodox Jewry in Frankfurt, Germany. Rav Hirsch noted that throughout the entire tenure of his rabbinate, he personally always conducted weddings indoors within the synagogue. Not only did he believe that there was no sin in performing weddings in synagogues, but just the opposite, he felt that it was preferable to conduct weddings and recite a blessing of “Yotzer HaAdam” [the Creator of man] in the House of the Creator of man. Rav Hirsch further noted that the custom to hold weddings in synagogues was not a modern innovation; rather an ancient practice of great rabbinic sages. For example, the Rama cites the Maharil who notes the custom of escorting the bride and groom into the synagogue at weddings. (Rama, SA, Yoreh Deah §371:3)
Rav Hirsch was also not concerned with the fact that his custom seemed to be contrary to that of the Rama who cited the custom that the wedding should be held outdoors for a Siman Beracha. Rav Hirsch contended that the terminology of the Rama indicated that conducting weddings outside under the heavens was not the common custom or the Halachic preference. The Rama did not state that it was the accepted custom to hold weddings outdoors. Nor did the Rama rule that such should be the practice. The Rama merely stated that “Yaish Omrim” or simply “some say,” that one should hold weddings outdoors. In other words, the Rama merely noted a custom but did not authenticate the custom as proper Halachic practice. (Responsa Shemesh Marpa, Siman 79 and 80)
As such, based upon the P’sak of Rav Hirsch, it is a proper Halachic option to conduct weddings in synagogues even without special cut-out sections of the ceiling of the synagogue. A MO rabbi would tend to favor an outdoor wedding for a “Siman Beracha,” but, in a torrential rain would rule that indoors is preferable.
Example (VII) A Tefillin Mirror
It has become popular for a number of religious Jews to place a mirror together with their Tallit and Tefillin. The purpose is to view the Shel Rosh, to assess that it is properly placed on one’s head. Is this practice necessary? Does Halacha mandate such a practice?
The holy sage, HaGoan, HaTzaddik Rav Chaim Sanzer (zt’l), author of the Divrai Chayyim, ruled that such a custom was foolish and uncouth [Divrai Burot]. His argument was that even should the Shel Rosh not be placed exactly in the middle of one’s head (at the hairline), it is still Kosher and the Mitzvah is observed. This is based on the tradition that there is room for placing two sets of Tefillin on one’s head. In addition, there is no maximum measurement for the width of the Tefillin Shel Rosh. (Tosafot Eruvin 95b s.v. “Makom”; and see, Bet Yosef OC §27) Accordingly, one need not be so scrupulous as to the exact perfect placement and alignment of the Tefillin on one’s head. (Responsa Divrai Chayyim, Chailek II, OC, Siman 6) In other words, it is an unnecessary custom. This would be the ruling of a MO Rav.
Example (VIII) Ga’al Yisrael—Recitation prior to Shemoneh Esreh/Amidah
Common custom in Hasidic Shtiblach is for the Shliach Tzibbur to recite silently the last two words of the Ga’al Yisrael Beracha prior to the silent Amida of Shacharit. Many individuals when praying in large synagogues follow the same procedure. The rationale seems as follows. There is a general rule of “S’michat Geula L’tefila.” This means that there should be no interruption between the Beracha of Ga’al Yisrael and the Amida. This implies that even a response of “Amen” is not to be recited. The Shliach Tzibbur’s silent recital of the conclusion of Birkat Ga’al Yisrael is therefore, a protective, preventive device to withhold the congregation from uttering an unwarranted “Amen.”
Is this proper Halacha? Are there any Halachic “pitfalls” or qualms that emanate from such a protective procedure?
HaRav HaGoan R. Henkin, the former Posek HaDor in America railed against this custom for several reasons. The Shulchan Aruch (based on the Zohar) rules that one should not recite “Amen” after the Beracha of Ga’al Yisrael. Yet, contrary to general custom and perception the Rama rules that it is permissible to recite such an “Amen.” (SA, OC §111:1) As such, is it proper to devise a protective procedure to withhold one from ruling like the Rama?
Of greater concern is the position of Rav Henkin that in the event that a Shliach Tzibbur does not recite the concluding portion of the Ga’al Yisrael Beracha, he may not be fulfilling his role as a Shliach Tzibbur. A Shliach Tzibbur has the responsibility of including in his Berachot all who lack the ability to pray by themselves. This means that his primary concern is to insure that all hear his Berachot. Yet at Ga’al Yisrael this does not take place. How then are those who are not able to Daven [pray] by themselves to be included in the Beracha of the Shliach Tzibbur when the Beracha is not recited in an audible tone? (Aidut L’Yisrael, p.161) In addition, some contend that a Shliach Tzibbur who has the proper Kavana for his Tefilot may include in his prayers even those who know how to pray for compared to such a high level of Kavana they would be classified as “those who know not how to pray.” (B’air Moshe, OC §124:17 cited in the name of the Ayshel Avraham) Again, by not reciting the entire Beracha of Ga’al Yisrael aloud, congregants are simply not included in the Shliach Tzibbur’s Beracha. Hence, a special procedure to (hopefully) prevent one from saying “Amen” would serve to, perhaps, nullify the role of the Shliach Tzibbur’s primary function.
(Both the Derech HaChayyim and the Shulchan Aruch HaRav suggest that a preferable custom is for all to recite Ga’al Yisrael together.)
Example (IX) Hats at Meals
Orthodox Jews cover their heads. The accepted practice is to wear a Yarmulka (a skullcap). Yet, even this basic custom has changed. At Shabbat or Yom Tov meals, as well as at a Seudat Mitzvah (e.g., wedding, Bar Mitzvah, etc.), many now wear hats during the meal. This custom is not only for Rebbes and Rabbonim, but also for “Frum” laymen and Yeshiva Bachurim even of a young age. Wearing a hat is deemed a special Kavod [honor] to the, for example, Shabbat meal. Those who sit at the table with just a skullcap on their heads are viewed as “not too Frum.” A number of modern women expressed concern that the custom of wearing hats at meals appears to them as not proper and somewhat bizarre. They feel as if the fact that their husbands do not wear outer-hats at meals, while other (guests) do, in some way disrespects their husbands. Of concern is whether this “Frum” custom is mandated by Halacha?
The Talmud stipulates that the cup of wine used prior to Birkat HaMazon [Kos Shel Beracha], has a number of customs appended to it. One of them is called “Eetuf” or in simple English, “wrapping.” Two concrete examples of “Eetuf” are presented. “Rav Pappa wrapped himself with a Tallit and Rav Asi placed a hat on his head.” (Berachot 51a)
The Bach (OC §183) interpreted the latter case as follows: Rav Asi wore a Yarmulka during the meal. As a mark of homage to the Kos Shel Beracha he also placed an outer-hat on his head. The Magen Avraham cites the ruling of the Bach and suggests: “Those who have fear of the Lord” should so practice. The Mishna Berura maintains that wearing a hat is a means of complying with the Talmudic edict of “Eetuf.” He also notes that common custom is to place a hat on one’s head for Birkat Hamazon even without a “Kos Shel Beracha” (OC §183:11)
The simple interpretation of this Halacha is that an outer-hat was not worn during the meal. Had it for example been worn during the meal, it would not have been noticeable as a special mark of homage to the “Kos Shel Beracha.” The laws appended to the “Kos Shel Beracha” suggest performing an action that is seen as something done specifically for the “Kos Shel Beracha.” Accordingly, to follow the Talmudic guideline would be to set in motion a custom opposite to the current custom. Instead of wearing an outer-hat during the meal, just the opposite should take place. During the meal only a Yarmulka should be worn. Yet, at Birkat HaMazon then, and only then, should a hat be worn to dramatically portray the importance of the “Kos Shel Beracha” and/or Birkat HaMazon? Though this is the most clear-cut reference to the Talmudic citation, facts do not derail “Charaidi” customs. The MO would simply follow the dictates of the Talmud.
Example (X) Refusing to Tolerate those who Disagree
The most recent egregious extremist position of (some of the leaders of) the Hassidic world is the news that the Vishnitzer Rebbe of Monsey boycotted the massive Agudat Yisrael sponsored Siyum HaShas. His rationale was that he simply found it difficult to attend an event that Zionist rabbis are participants. Apprehension was expressed that a number of important Rebbes may follow suit. The Agudat Yisrael’s response was interesting. They noted that those who do not wish to attend the Siyum HaShas should simply return their tickets. No arguments were presented. No discussion of propriety noted. What is alarming and insulting is the very thought that the presence of Zionist rabbis, for example, Rabbi Lau former Chief Rabbi of Israel, in the program, galvanizes a prohibition to attend. The Vishnitzer Rebbe’s proclaimed qualms, illustrates how questionable sometimes and bizarre are the overzealous extreme policies of this segment of so-called rabbinical leaders. A MO leader would never even contemplate such a policy. Such an extreme policy marks the ability of some to alter an event from a public Kiddush Hashem to a public Chilul Hashem. Rav Yisrael Salanter (zt’l) used to say that “involvement in communal affairs requires three essential commitments: (a) Not to become angry; (b) Not to become tired (burned out); and (c) Not to constantly seek victory of one’s views over the views of others).” (Pachad Yitzchok, Iggerit 152) I guess the Vishnitzer Rebbe does not accept the third rule.
Example (XI) Refusing to Inform Authorities of Sex Offenders
Several years ago in an article dealing with reporting Jewish criminals to authorities, I contended that it was a Kiddush Hashem to do so. My argument was that in the event that the public subsequently become aware that rabbis knew of the crimes, especially sex abuses, and simply did not make such knowledge available to authorities it would generate a terrible Chilul Hashem. On the other hand, should rabbis report such crimes it would be a Kiddush Hashem manifesting that rabbis are moral and uphold the rule of law. At that time, a number of Charaidi rabbis noted that just the opposite ruling is proper. It was a Chilul HaShem to destroy the reputation of rabbis and mar the prestige of institutions.
In light of contemporary scandals I believe my position appears verified by facts. Chaucer once wrote that “truth will out.” How true. Crimes may be hidden or almost forgotten; but sooner or later, such crimes become public knowledge. At that time, no one has compassion for those who consciously withheld the truth. Is there any guarantee that abuses of sex with students will remain hidden from the public? Look at the leaders of Penn State. Does anyone believe that the reputation of the Penn State University football team was more important than the ugly truth of sexual abuse? A review of the many trials of Catholic religious leaders who falsely publicly defended the high morality of their priests is ample proof of the public negative reaction to such silence.
Recently it came to the attention of the public of a famous rabbi in Australia who withheld information of sexual abuse by a young rabbi under his supervision. This Rav was a noted Talmid Chacham, a builder of many major Torah institutions, a Baal Chessed and deemed a great religious leader. Years after this Rav passed away it became known that he was aware of sexual abuses by a rabbi under his supervision and never reported this fact to the authorities. Stories of the abuses were featured daily in the papers. The rabbi’s sterling reputation was destroyed. Instead of a memory of a Torah hero who helped make Australia into a fortress of Torah, the Rav was depicted as a criminal who coddled and kept silent about sexual abuses. His so-called rationale was that he thought he could change the sexual pervert. He failed. The Jewish community suffered for his omission. The scandal was a major Chillul HaShem, negatively impacting the entire Jewish community.
A modern Orthodox Rav will not and should not put his own personal ego above communal moral standards. For some unexplainable reason some Hasidic and Yeshiva Rabbonim seem more concerned with the Kavod of their institution than the Kavod of the community at large. What happens is that being stringent in protecting the dignity of their institution (or rabbi) by placing a fence of silence around abusive actions generally leads to a lessening of respect for Torah itself.
Example (XII) Wearing Tzitzit Outside of Garments
Hasidim and B’nai Yeshiva generally wear their Tzitzit outside of their clothes. The actual garment, the Tallit Katon, may either be worn under or over their clothes, but the Tzitzit, the strings, are worn outside of their garments. The MO generally do not follow this custom. Their Tzitzit are totally hidden from view. Of interest is that The Mishna Berura serves as an advocate and forceful champion of the custom to wear Tzitzit outside of one’s garments. He argues as follows:
Those people who place the Tzitzit inside their trousers /act improperly. It is not enough that they ignore /the fact/ that it is stated [in the Torah] “and you shall see it and you shall remember, etc.,” but, in addition they show contempt for the Mitzvah of Hashem…. They will be accountable for this in the future…. If they would have /received/ some gift from a king of flesh and blood on which the name of the king is engraved how/proudly/would they adorn themselves with it in front of/other/ people always. All the more so/they should wish to adorn themselves/ with Tzitzit, which alludes to the Name of the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He…. A person who bears His Name on his/person/ is greatly honored.
(Mishna Berura, Orech Chayyim 8:26- Translation, The Pisgah Foundation text)
Thus anyone who does not wear his Tzitzit outside of his clothes for all to see appears, according to the Mishna Berura, a sinner who is ashamed of this great Mitzvah. Is this a correct portrayal of those who wear their Tzitzit under their clothes? Are such Jews to be designated as sinners?
The difficulty with this extreme position is that not all Poskim actually maintain that it is proper to wear Tzitzit for all to notice. The Talmud notes that the Mitzvah of Tzitzit is comparable to all the Mitzvot of the Torah. Rashi explains this position. The Hebrew word Tzitzit has a numerical value of 600. (Tzadik = 90, Yud = 10, Tzadik = 90; and Tof = 400. Add to this the fact that in every corner there are 8 string and 5 knots; altogether comprise 613, the total amount of Mitzvot.) (Menachot 43b) The MaHari Beruna, a Fifteenth century revered sage ruled that only a great scholar or an outstanding pious person may wear Tzitzit outside of garments. Otherwise it is an act of arrogance to wear Tzitzit over garments so as to manifest that the person observes all the Mitzvot of the Torah. That is hubris and not proper for one to proclaim. A Jew should be modest and not attempt to show all, how righteous he is. For this reason, proper modesty is to wear Tzitzit under the garments. This position is the accepted practice of the MO.
Example (XIII) Prayers For The Government During Synagogue Services
In the Batai Midrashim of Hasidim and B’nai Yeshiva there are no prayers for the government. At MO synagogues however, prayers for the government are an integral aspect of the services. Is it proper to recite prayers for a non-Jewish government during regular Tefilot?
It is interesting to note that the following Talmudic citation overtly manifests that prayers for the safety and success of one’s government was an ancient custom practiced in the Bet HaMikdash. To the extent that such prayers were recited in the Bet HaMikdash certainly they may be recited during synagogue services.
The Talmud relates that that the Samaritans (Cutheans), received permission from Alexander the Great, to destroy the Holy Bet HaMikdash based upon the Samaritan claim that the Jews sought to rebel against the King. Shimon HaTzaddik, the Kohain Gadol, heard of this false charge and made plans to personally meet with King Alexander in order to rescind this horrible decree. Shimon HaTzaddik robed himself with his priestly garments and set out to meet the King. Travelling on either side of him throughout the night were the nobles of Jerusalem carrying torches in their hands. At daylight, the procession approached the king’s camp. “Who are these people?” called-out Alexander. The Samaritans responded that they are the Jews who rebel against the King. As the sun began to shine, Alexander noted the figure of Shimon HaTzaddik. In reverence, the king dismounted and bowed before Shimon HaTzaddik. His explanation was that prior to every battle, the image of this old and bearded man in white, appeared before him and served as a propitious sign that that won for him all his battles. Alexander called out to the Jews, “Why have you come?” The Jewish response was, “how is it possible that star-worshipers should mislead you to destroy the House [Bet HaMikdash] wherein prayers are said for you and your kingdom that it never be destroyed.” Upon hearing this, Alexander recognized that the Jews were not rebelling against him and delivered the Samaritans into the hands of the Jews to be punished. (Yoma 69a)
Commenting on this Gemora the Maharsha notes that that the proof that the Jews were not rebelling was the fact of their regular prayers on behalf of the welfare of the government. Namely, one does not pray for the success of a government that one seeks to rebel and destroy.
Accordingly, even in the Bet HaMikdash, Jews prayed for the welfare of the government to allay false charges that Jews were disloyal. The view of Shimon HaTzaddik by Alexander provided the Jews with an opportunity to speak with the King. It gave them an audience. The fact that Jews constantly prayed for the success of the government was the clinching argument to sustain their loyalty.
As such, from the time of Shimon HaTzaddik to the present, the tradition is to publicly pray for the government during synagogue services. Jewish life is constantly open to charges of disloyalty That is the nature of our enemies. Prayers for the government are our historical refutation of such slander. Thus, the maxim of Pirke Avot to “Pray for the welfare of the government” (Avot 3:2), was not a rule only directed to individuals but a time honored practice for places of worship.
Ib. Uniqueness of MO Beliefs and Practices
The MO view the State of Israel as a positive religious accomplishment of the Jewish people. The MO are proud of the State of Israel and are more than willing to pray for its survival and future success in our synagogues. Secular university studies are not deemed as sinful but rather for students to recognize pitfalls and extract its advantages.
The role of the Jew is to be able to support himself and family. It is not sinful to work at a profession or occupation.
Music, art and modern technology are all instruments to enhance the MO Jew and are not to be shunned as sinful. Computers are not sinful; people sin. Women are not to be denigrated nor deemed as second-class citizens totally separated from men.
Note the above. The Mo Jew wants to live like the generation of Jews in Spain centuries ago, wherein Jews attained secular knowledge and enjoyed life itself. The new anti-cosmopolitan technologic religious prohibitions are antithetical to the MO Jew. (Each of the above requires a major analysis)
Several years ago at a Jerusalem convention of the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Sacks, Chief Rabbi of England, once made an interesting observation. The Bible informs us that Moshe upon sending spies to the land of Israel directed them to assess whether the cities were weak or strong. Rashi comments that if the cities were fortified with walls it was indicative that the people were frightened and relied on the fortifications to protect them. If, on the other hand, the cities lacked walls and fortifications, it indicated that the people were strong and had no fear of enemies nor need of fortifications. (Numbers, 13:18) Based on this Rashi, Rabbi Sacks questioned whether the same applies to Jewish life. The fact that we adopted stringency upon stringency does it not mean that we are freighted of the contemporary life? The more we place fences and further gates around our Jewish observances does it not mean that our leadership believe we are weak and would succumb to the negative aspects of modern life? Is not our Torah sufficient armor to protect us from the pitfalls of modern life?
When I mentioned this to a group of B’nai Torah, I was told that in Avot it says, “Make a fence to Torah.”(Avot 1:1) Accordingly all the Chumrot are fences set-up to protect Jews from sinful behavior. Thus, the so-called extreme Halachic behavior is within the guidelines of the traditional mandate to establish fences to Torah. In response, it should be noted that many commentaries contend that the maxim in Avot refers to the role of Bet Din (or Bet Din HaGadol).This generates the question as to whether modern day Hassidic and Yeshiva Gedolim have the authority to establish new Gezairot and ordinances? Who changed Rav Henkin’s Psak that communal Halachic scholars should not have a proclivity to be stringent? The MO are merely reasserting the actual orientation of generations of deciders of Halacha. This quality of caring for the needs of the community at large by refusing to set up extreme Halachic practices as the guide for Halachic decisions—this is the uniqueness of the MO and this is its strength. This is the true proper traditional orientation of deciders of Halacha.
The last Mishna in Uktzin, the final Mishna of the Talmud states, “Kol Tzaddik V’tzddik,” every single righteous person will receive a special reward. Commenting on the double usage of the word “Tzaddik,” Tosafot Yom Tov commentary states that it refers to two types of righteous people, one stringent the other lenient. Both deserve a reward. Both types may be designated as righteous. The Yeshiva world and Hasidim prefer to be stringent. The MO has the penchant to be lenient. Both may be termed “Tzadikim.”