Min haMuvhar

Rabbi Yaacov Huli: Author of the Me'am Lo'ez

(These are exerpts from Rabbi Marc D. Angel's book, Voices in Exile, pp. 103-110).   


 Rabbi Yaacov Huli (1689-1732) was born and raised in Jerusalem, where he received an excellent rabbinic education. When he went to Istanbul in 1714, his profound and expansive rabbinic knowledge won him the respect of the great scholars of that city. Rabbi Yehudah Rosanes, chief rabbi of the community and a world-renowned scholar, appointed the young Rabbi Huli to his rabbinical court. When Rabbi Rosanes died some years later, it was Yaacov Huli who compiled and edited his master's classic commentary on Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, known as Mishneh leMelekh.

     Rabbi Huli was disturbed by the low level of Jewish instruction available to the working class and the poor. If they had no access to the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic texts, how were they to be fully observant Jews? How were they to know what the Torah required of them? The proliferation of scholarly rabbinic texts in Hebrw did nothing to improve the spiritual condition of those whose academic training was deficient.

     Rabbi Huli conceived the idea of producing a comprehensive work in Judeo-Spanish for the benefit of the Sephardic public. Entitled Me'am Lo'ez, it was framed as a commentary on the Torah. The first volume, published in 1730, dealt with the Book of Genesis. In this work, Rabbi Huli provided classic rabbinic interpretations and commentaries on the biblical verses. Laws and customs, rabbinic homilies, and ethical lessons were interspersed throughout the work.  The book was written in a popular, engaging style. Indeed, Rabbi Huli worried that it would be used merely for entertainment rather than for serious Torah study. As a work in the vernacular, it was available to a wide audience. It was written in a language and style which they could understand, appreciate, and enjoy.  The Me'am Lo'ez was something of an encyclopedia of biblical and rabbinic learning, so that those who studied it derived a wide array of information and inspiration.

     Rabbi Huli intended to publish similar volumes for all the books of the Torah. He did complete Genesis and much of Exodus. After his untimely death at the age of forty-three, other rabbis continued the work in the spirit of Rabbi Huli, comleting the Five Books of Moses and other biblical books as well.

     The Me'am Lo'ez was an immediate success. It went into numerous editions and was read enthusiastically by a large audience. Rabbi Huli had constructed the work so that people would be able to study the weekly Torah portion from it. The book was used in this manner by families and study groups, and in synagogues.....

     Rabbi Huli did not think of the Me'am Lo'ez as an original work. Rather, he viewed himself as a compiler of many and diverse classic Jewish sources. He was pleased to be a popularizer, bringing comprehensive knowledge to the public in a lucid and pleasant style. But his approach was indeed original. It was he who decided what material to include and what to exclude; how to present it in a lively manner; how to capture the interest of his readers and speak to their everyday needs. In many wasy, the Me'am Lo'ez mirrored the spiritual life of the Judeo-Spanish speaking world of the time....

     The Me'am Lo'ez appealed to the masses because it was sympathetic to the poor and downtrodden. Rabbi Huli drew on traditional sources which extolled humility and honest labor. Rabbi Huli explained that there was no shame in working for an honest living. One should not think it beneath his dignity to work at a craft or any other honest occupation, and should not attempt to live in a style beyond his means (Genesis 12:4). When our forefather Jacob prayed, he asked only for bread and clothing, not for any luxuries. Truly pious people did not seek superfluous things, but were happy with the basic necessities which God provided them (Genesis 28:22).

     God created Adam from dust, not from gold (Genesis 1:1). He created a vast universe. One who looks at the sky at night and contemplates the countless stars cannot help but be overwhelmed by the grandeur and power of God. He is humbled by his own smallness in the universe. This feeling of humility leads one to serve God with devotion and purity (Genesis 2:7).

     A facet of humility is that one should not try to show off his piety and righteousness. On the contrary, one should walk humbly with God, keeping his piety as private as possible. Rabbi Huli reminded his readers that one is allowed to bow only in designated places during the silent devotion, the Amidah. To bow more frequently would be a sign of presumptuousness and false piety. One should not do things which will make him appear to be more pious than other worshippers (Genesis 12:4).

     The work of Rabbi Huli reflected the midrashic/kabbalist view of life which then predominated among the Sephardim in Moslem lands. Philosophic inquiry was no longer a vital part of the intellectual life of the community. The emphasis was on an absolute commitment to observing the halakhah in all its details. Kabbalah was recognized to have inestimable value and was a necessary ingredient in religious life. The willing acceptance of God's decrees with equanimity was encouraged, engendering a relative passivity. The predominant worldview emphasized loyalty to rabbis and the rabbinic tradition. The messianic hope was expressed longingly, wishfully.

(NOTE:  Rabbi Huli's last name is sometimes presented as Culi, rather than Huli. But the name Huli is the correct way the name was pronounced by Sephardim. Indeed, Rabbi Huli himself alluded to his name when he entitled his work Me'am Lo'ez, drawn from Psalm 114.  The word "lo'ez" refers to a foreign language, in this case Ladino.  Toward the end of the Psalm, the verse reads: milifnei adon HULI arets, milifnei Elo-kei YAACOV, a clear allusion to his own name, Yaacov Huli.)

Modern Orthodoxy and Halakha: An Inquiry

In his book, The Perspective of Civilization, Fernand Braudel utilizes a concept that he calls “world-time.” Braudel notes that at any given point in history, all societies are not at the same level of advancement. The leading countries exist in world-time; that is, their level of advancement is correlated to the actual date in history. However, there also are countries and civilizations which are far behind world-time, whose way of life may be centuries or even millennia behind the advanced societies. In this year of 5745, for example, the advanced technological countries exist in world-time while underdeveloped countries lag generations behind; some societies are still living as their ancestors did centuries ago. In short, everyone in the world may be living at the same chronological date, but different societies may be far from each other in terms of world-time.

Braudel's analysis also can be extended to the way people think. Even though people may be alive at the same time, their patterns of thinking may be separated by generations or even centuries.

The characteristic of Modern Orthodoxy is that it is modern, that it is correlated to the contemporary world-time. Being part of contemporary world-time, it draws on the teachings of modern scholarship, it is open to modern philosophy and literature, and it relates Jewish law to contemporary world realities. On the other hand, “non-modern” Orthodoxy does not operate in the present world-time. Its way of thinking and dealing with contemporary reality are pre-modern, generations behind contemporary world-time. Thus, there are deep mental gulfs of time between such Orthodox people as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and the Satmar Rebbe, or between many members of the Rabbinical Council of America and many members of the Agudath haRabbanim. It is not that one is more Orthodox than the other: their belief in God, Torah min haShamayim (divine revelation of the Torah) and the sanctity of the Written and Oral Law are shared commitments. The differences between so-called right-wing Orthodoxy and Modern Orthodoxy are not differences in sincerity or in authentic commitment. Rather, the differences stem from different world views, from living in different world-times.

A Modern Orthodox rabbi does not wish to think like a medieval rabbi, even though he wishes to fully understand what the medieval rabbi wrote and believed. The Modern Orthodox halakhist wishes to draw on the wisdom of the past, not to be part of the past.

The philosophy of Modern Orthodoxy is not at all new. Rather, it is a basic feature of Jewish thought throughout the centuries. In matters of halakha, for example, it is axiomatic that contemporary authorities are obligated to evaluate halakhic questions from their own immediate perspective, rather than to rely exclusively on the opinions of rabbis of previous generations. Rambam (Hilkhot Mamrim 2: 1) writes: “A great court—bet din gadol—when interpreting the Torah with one of the hermeneutic principles, found that the law on a certain matter was such-and-such, and then another court came afterward and found a reason to reject the ruling of the first court—the second bet din rejects the ruling of the first bet din and rules according to what it deems correct. As it is said (Devarim17:9) 'To the judge who will be in office at that time'—you are not obligated to go except to the bet din of your generation.” The well-known phrase that “Yiftah in his generation is like Shemuel in his generation” (Rosh haShanah 25b) expresses the need to rely on contemporary authorities, even if they are not of the stature of the authorities of previous generations. We are obligated to be “Modern Orthodox,” to recognize present reality and to participate in contemporary world-time.

Rabbi Haim David Halevy (Aseh Lekha Rav, 2:61) deals with the case of a judge who had reached a certain halakhic conclusion and gave a ruling on it. The judge then learned that another judge greater than he ruled on the same case but came to another conclusion. Should the first judge change his decision and rely on the authority of the greater one, or is he obligated to maintain his own position if he truly believes it to be correct? Rabbi Halevy quotes Rambam (Hilkhot Sanhedrin 23:9), who states the principle that En leDayan ella mah sheEnav ro’ot—a judge has only what his eyes see. Rabbi Halevy states that the decision of a judge must be based solely on his own understanding of the case he is considering. “And no legal precedent obligates him, even if it is a decision of courts greater than he, even of his own teachers.” Later in the same responsum, Rabbi Halevy writes: “Not only does a judge have the right to rule against his rabbis; he also has an obligation to do so (if he believes their decision to be incorrect, and he has strong proofs to support his own position). If the decision of those greater than he does not seem right to him, and he is not comfortable following it, and yet he follows that decision (in deference to their authority), then it is almost certain that he has rendered a false judgment (din sheker).”

The key principle here is that each judge must make a decision based on what his own eyes see. Obviously, a judge will want to understand the reasons why the greater rabbis and courts came to their conclusions. Perhaps by studying them, he will realize that he has erred and subsequently change his opinion. However, if after all his studying and analyzing the previous decisions he still maintains that his opinion is the correct one, he is then obligated to rule according to his own conclusion. He is not bound by precedent or by the weight of greater authorities.
One of the weaknesses of contemporary Orthodoxy is that it is not “modern” in the sense just discussed. There is a prevailing attitude that teaches us to revere the opinions of the sages of previous generations, and to defer to those contemporary sages who occupy a world-time contemporary with those sages. Who is addressing halakhic questions today on the basis of what his own eyes see? Who are the sages of the present world-time, who absorb the contemporary reality, the contemporary ways of thinking and analyzing?

It is a common lament among Modern Orthodox Jews that Modern Orthodoxy lacks courage. Modern Orthodoxy is intimidated by the so-called right-wing, by the group of Jews that is pre-modern. Modern Orthodox scholars are reluctant to express their opinions and rulings for fear of losing religious stature in the eyes of the more fundamentalistic Orthodox Jews. When a Modern Orthodox scholar does express his own opinion, he often is criticized sharply by the pre-Modern Orthodox, and he is not adequately supported by the Modern Orthodox. The spiritual climate of today makes it very easy to remain quiet rather than risk lonely spiritual battle against forces that are more militant and more vocal.

We need to understand that the difference between Modern Orthodoxy and pre-Modern Orthodoxy is not one of religious validity. And we also must understand that being Modern Orthodox or pre-Modern Orthodox does not make our decisions necessarily right or wrong. To be Modern Orthodox Jews means to accept our limitations, but it also means that we must accept our responsibility to judge according to what our own eyes see, according to our own understanding. It means to have the self-respect to accept that responsibility.
Modern Orthodoxy and pre-Modern Orthodoxy do not engage in intelligent dialogue because they operate on separate time waves. They follow different assumptions.

In a recent discussion concerning the adoption of a pre-nuptial agreement to avoid the agunah (abandoned wife) problem, a pre-modern opinion has been expressed that we should not initiate a new procedure, since this would seem to imply that we are more sensitive and creative than the sages of previous generations who did not initiate such a procedure. This kind of argument cannot be countered with a reasonable discussion. This is an argument from a different world-time. The argument, which is fairly widespread, is essentially ludicrous. Throughout the centuries, our sages have initiated takanot (corrective decrees) in their communities to meet the contemporary needs of their people. Did they think it was an insult to their predecessors to be responsive to contemporary needs? Did Rabbenu Gershom slander all previous generations of rabbis by instituting his takanot?

The fact is that rabbis in all generations have had to face the serious responsibility of leading their communities in the ways of Torah. They have drawn on the wisdom and holiness of our sages of previous generations, but they ultimately have had to rely on their own judgment and on what their own eyes saw. The sages of each generation are influenced by the social and political realities of their time. If many of our sages believed in demons and witches, if they thought that the sun revolved around the earth, or if they assigned inferior status to women and slaves—we can understand that they were part of a world that accepted these notions. We do not show disrespect for them by understanding the context in which they lived and thought. On the contrary, we are able to understand their words better, and thus we may determine how they may or may not be applied to our own contemporary situation It is not disrespectful to our sages if we disagree with their understanding of physics, psychology, sociology, or politics. On the contrary, it would be foolish not to draw on the advances in these fields that have been made throughout the generations, including those of our own time.

There is no sense in forcing ourselves into an earlier world-time in order to mold our ways of thinking into harmony with modes of thought of sages who lived several hundred or even several thousand years ago.

Modern Orthodoxy requires us to live in the present world-time, knowing full well that many of the notions which we consider true and basic may become discredited in future centuries. We do not want those future generations of rabbis to be limited in their thinking to what we are thinking and teaching today. We want them to be respectful of our teachings and to consider our words seriously; but it is they who must lead their generation. Our time is now, and only now. The Torah, which is eternal, requires Jews to go to the judge living and serving in their own time.

Specific Examples

If we take Modern Orthodoxy seriously, then we will study talmudic passages and halakhic sources with an eye to understanding their historical and intellectual context. Sometimes we will come across texts that have broad halakhic implications but whose application to the contemporary situation is problematic. The following are several specific examples of the conflict that arises.

Shabbat Desecrators

There is a well-known rabbinic dictum: “One who desecrates the Shabbat in public is as an idol worshipper” (Hullin 5a). This statement underscores the importance of Shabbat in Jewish thought and practice. To desecrate Shabbat publicly is an open statement that one denies that God created the world in six days and ceased working on the seventh. By extension, one who blasphemes God as Creator by desecrating Shabbat is indeed like an idol worshipper, i.e., he does not recognize the one true God, Creator of heaven and earth (see Rashi, ad loc.).

Flowing from this statement are a host of halakhot. A mehallel Shabbat (Shabbat desecrator) is disqualified from serving as a shohet (ritual slaughterer). Even if he slaughters an animal entirely in accordance with Jewish law, the meat may not be eaten by Jews (Rambam, Hilkhot Shehitah 4:14). A mehallel Shabbat may not serve as a witness, since he is in the category of rasha (evildoer). If he touches wine, we may not drink it, just as if the wine were touched by an idol worshipper. Rabbi Haim David Halevy (Aseh Lekha Rav, 5: 1) discusses whether a mehallel Shabbat may be counted as part of a minyan. He quotes the Peri Megadim, who stated that “a mumar (willful transgressor) to avodah zarah (idol worship), one who desecrates Shabbat, or one who violates any commandment lehakhis (willfully), behold he is as an idolater and is not included (in the minyan).” Moreover, following this principle to its conclusion, a mehallel Shahbat may not be given an aliya to the Torah, just as we may not call an idolater to the Torah.
There are several options available to us on how to deal with this set of halakhot and the principle on which they are based.

We may accept the statement at face value that in fact a mehallel Shabbat is like an idolater, and is subject to the aforementioned disqualifications. To hold this position, we must posit that the talmudic statement and the halakhic development of that statement transcend all generations, and are as applicable now as when first stated. Consequently, we should maintain the ancient standard without compromise, regardless of ramifications. If the talmudic characterization of a mehallel Shabhat is equally applicable to our time, then we should fight heroically to defend the principle and the laws based on it. This is essentially the opinion of the “pre-modern” Orthodox.

The Modern Orthodox position is that this statement simply cannot be taken at face value in our time. The number of Jews who violate Shabbat far exceeds the number of those who observe Shabbat.

One approach is to express loyalty to the original statement while finding extenuating circumstances so that the implications of the original statement need not be fully applied. For example, Rabbi Haim David Halevy was asked a question (Aseh Lekha Rav. 5:1) that posed the problem of a small synagogue that had a minyan only if Shabbat desecrators were included. Should the Shabbat desecrators be counted for minyan, even though this would be against the basic law? Or should the synagogue be closed due to a lack of a proper minyan? Rabbi Halevy writes. “It is incumbent upon us to find a way of being lenient.” It bothers him that a synagogue should have to close because of the technicality of the mehallel Shabbat. He offers several arguments to justify his position. As an extra point, he gives the following analysis:

A mehallel Shabbat in public who is disqualified from being counted into a minyan of ten—this refers only to those early days when they understood and valued the seriousness of the prohibition [of Shabbat] and also nearly everyone was scrupulous in observing Shabbat according to the law, so that one who ‘breaches the fence’ was disqualified. But this is not true in our time. Our eyes see a multitude of Shabbat desecrators, and the overwhelming majority do not understand and do not realize the seriousness of the prohibition. Behold: they come to the synagogue and pray and read in the Torah, and do not understand and do not realize—they walk in darkness—and afterwards they desecrate the Shabbat. And perhaps such as these are as a tinok sheNishbah (a child who was captured and then grew up among heathens, and is not held accountable for his transgressions, for he never knew any differently).

In another responsum (Aseh Lekha Rav, 3:16) Rabbi Halevy deals with the question whether a Bar Mitzvah and his family may be called to the Torah, if they come to the synagogue on Shabbat in a car. His answer is that we must try to bring the young boy and his family closer to the Torah, and not reject them. He quotes his own earlier work, Mekor Hayyim haShalem, (vol. 3, 122:20), where he wrote that according to the technicality of the law, those who desecrate Shabbat in public should not be called to the Torah; yet, if there is a fear that this will cause bad feelings, then such people should be called to the Torah as hosafot (those called to the Torah beyond the required seven). This is so “since in our generation, an orphan generation, it is proper to be lenient in such circumstances, and it is our obligation to bring them closer and not to push them further away, and God in His goodness will have mercy on us.”

Rabbi David Tzevi Hoffmann (Melammed Leho'il, no. 29) deals with the question of whether a mehallel Shabbat in public may be counted in a minyan. He first lists sources that forbid such a man from being counted. Then he goes on to say: “In our time it is customary to be lenient in this, even in Hungary, and certainly in Germany.” He mentions the case of a man who kept his business open on Shabbat who wanted to serve as the sheli'ah tsibbur (leader of public prayer services) during his period of mourning. He was allowed to do this in a synagogue even though the gabbai (one in charge of delegating responsibilities during services) who let him lead the service was a learned and God-fearing man. Rabbi Hoffmann asked the gabbai why he did not prevent the man from leading the service. The gabbai answered that it had long been the custom not to prevent such people from leading services. Since the rabbis of that synagogue were outstanding scholars and they allowed this practice, Rabbi Hoffmann concludes that they must have had a good reason. He suggests that perhaps they relied on a responsum of Binyan Tziyyon haHadashot, no. 23,which stated that “Mehallelei Shabbat in our time are considered somewhat like a tinok sheNishbah, since—due to our great iniquities—the majority of Jews in our country are mehallelei Shabbat, and it is not their intention to deny the basic tenets of our faith.”

Rabbi Hoffmann then writes that he was told by Rabbi Meshulam Zalman Hakohen in the name of the author of Sho'el uMeshiv, who wrote: “The people in America are not disqualified because of their hillul Shabbat, since they are as tinok sheNishbah.” Although it would be better to pray among Jews who were all Shabbat-observant, there is enough precedent to be lenient in this matter.

Rabbi Hoffmann concludes by offering the following analysis:

In our time, such people are not called mehallel Shabbat in public, because the majority of Jews violate the laws of Shabbat. If the majority of Jews were observant and a few of them were arrogant enough to violate Shabbat, then this minority would be guilty of denying the Torah and of committing a disgraceful act and of removing themselves from the community of Israel. [This is obviously the original context of the talmudic statement.] However, since the contemporary reality is that the majority of Jews violate Shabbat, the individual does not think that violating Shabbat is such a terrible crime. His public transgression today is equated to beTsinah (transgressions of the Shabbat done in private).

Rabbi Hoffmann concludes by lamenting that in our times, those who observe Shabbat are considered separatists, while the transgressors are considered to be following the normal pattern.

Rabbi Hoffmann's concluding discussion makes it clear that the original context of the talmudic statement equating a Shabbat violator with an idolater cannot be applied to the contemporary situation. We cannot judge someone to be a desecrator of Shabbat if he does not realize the true sanctity of the day. There are a great many Jews who transgress Shabbat laws, but who consider themselves to be perfectly upright Jews. They do not view themselves as denying God as Creator or as repudiating the basic principles of our faith.

The challenge of Modern Orthodoxy is to review the true status of Jews who violate Shabbat today. If someone had been religious and had studied the laws of Shabbat—and then consciously decided to violate Shabbat as a sign of rebellion against the Torah—then such a person may fit into the talmudic category and should be penalized accordingly. If, however, a person never understood the sanctity of Shabbat, his violation of the laws of Shabbat does not reflect heresy or hatred of Torah. On the contrary, it reflects his ignorance and his being part of a Jewish community that largely does not observe Shabbat properly. Such a person is like a tinok sheNishbah, and should not be subject to the penalties accorded to a true mehallel Shabbat in public. This position is stated not as a compromise with the authentic halakha; this is the actual halakha. The Talmud simply was not referring to the situation we have today. And we must judge according to the present world-time, according to what our own eyes see.

Another insight into this question may be drawn from the laws of shehitah. Rambam (Hilkhot Shehitah 4:14) rules that a mehallel Shabbat is disqualified from serving as a shohet. Even if he performs the shehitah perfectly in accordance with halakha, and even if there are reliable religious Jews overseeing his shehitah, the meat is still not considered to be kasher. In halakha 4:16, though, Rambam rules that a Sadducee or another person who denies the Oral Torah may not serve as a shohet; but if he does slaughter an animal in the presence of a trustworthy Jew, then the meat may be eaten. The Sadducee is not totally disqualified from performing shehitah. Yet, a problem arises. According to us, a Sadducee is definitely a mehallel Shabbat. Sadducees do not accept the Oral Torah; since many of the laws of Shabbat are known only from the Torah sheBe’al peh, it is inevitable that a Sadducee will not observe Shabbat as we do. He will be transgressing rules that we consider basic to Shabbat observance.

It seems, then, that a Sadducee—though he violates the laws of Shabbat in public—does not become disqualified as a desecrator of Shabbat. His lack of observance is based on a lack of knowledge, or on misguided teachings he has received. But he does not perceive himself at all as one who desecrates the Shabbat, even though from our point of view he is violating many laws. The rulings pertaining to a mehallel Shabbat are applied only to an individual who recognizes the severity of his actions and who desecrates Shabbat as a sign of his rejection of God and Torah.

The Status of Women

Let us move on to another area of discussion. In several places (Kiddushin 80b, Shabbat 33b) we find the statement that Nashim da 'atan kalah. Generally, this statement is translated to mean that women are temperamentally lightheaded or that women's understanding is light. We also have the remarkable statement of Rabbi Eliezer (Sotah 20a) that whoever teaches his daughter Torah teaches her tiflut (foolishness or obscenity). These statements reflect a cultural bias against women that was pervasive in ancient society, and which still can be found in less-advanced societies today. These statements reflect the world-time of their authors. From a literary or historical standpoint, it would be fairly easy to dismiss these and similar comments by arguing that they belong to a particular time and a certain way of thought.

The problem arises, though, in that these sentiments were not left merely as opinions of rabbis on the nature of women; they were incorporated into practical halakha. The following is a quotation from Rambam, Hilkhot Talmud Torah (I:13):

A woman who learns Torah receives a reward, but not the same reward as a man, since she was not commanded (to study Torah); and anyone who does something for which he [she] was not commanded does not receive reward on the same level as someone who was commanded and who performed it, but rather receives less. And although she does have a reward, our sages commanded that a man must not teach his daughter Torah since the intelligence of the majority of women is not geared to be instructed; rather, they reduce the words of Torah to matters of foolishness according to the poverty of their understanding. Our sages said: one who teaches his daughter Torah is as though he taught her foolishness. To what does this refer? To the Oral Torah; but as for the Written Torah, he should not teach her. If he did teach her it is not as though he taught her foolishness.

Once talmudic statements are incorporated into halakhic codes, they transcend their own original world-time and become a factor in the thinking of all later generations. The modern sensibility that accords women equal intellect with men comes into conflict not only with ancient talmudic statements, but also with practical halakha. How are we to deal with this dilemma?

We may submit ourselves to the talmudic world-time. We may argue that the statements of our sages are true and binding on all future generations. Since Rambam rules that women may not be taught Torah and that their ability to learn is poor, we should see to it that our daughters receive no formal Torah education, except in the mitzvoth that concern them directly. Moreover, when we teach girls, we should treat them as being intellectually inferior compared to boys, and therefore we should have different curricula for girls and for boys. This point of view is adopted by pre-modern Orthodox.

There are schools for girls where the girls do not learn Talmud and where their curriculum is different from that in boys' schools. There is no yeshiva for girls in the same sense as there are yeshivot for boys who wish to devote their days and nights to the study of Torah.

Among the Modern Orthodox, though, there is a general recognition that our social situation is radically different from that of previous generations. The need to educate our daughters in Torah has been widely recognized, even though there is still great difference of opinion as to how they should be educated. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef wrote a responsum (Shanah beShanah, 5743, pp. 157–161) in which he permitted the celebration of Bat Mitzvah for girls who have reached the age of twelve. In the course of the responsum, he quotes Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg (Seridei Esh, 3:93), who wrote that it was perfectly proper to celebrate a Bat Mitzvah.

And concerning those who argue against this because this was not practiced in previous generations: this is no argument at all, since in the generations before us they did not have to engage in the education of their daughters because every Jew was filled with Torah and fear of God, and the entire environment was filled with a pure spirit and the holiness of Judaism….But now, due to our many sins, the generations have undergone a very great change. The influence of the street destroys and uproots all attachment to Judaism from the hearts of Jewish girls. It is incumbent upon us to rally all our strength for the education of girls; and to our joy, the sages of the previous generation already took a stand and established educational institutions of Torah and understanding for Jewish girls….And if the distinction that is made between boys and girls [in terms of Bar or Bat Mitzvah] severely damages the human sensibility of the girl, it is permissible to have a party and celebration at home for girls who celebrate their Bat Mitzvah.

Since times and conditions have changed, we must adapt to the new realities.

The Modern Orthodox approach calls on us to re-evaluate the original sources and the halakhot based on those sources. We need to determine whether those statements refer to us at all. If they do then we must follow them regardless of the social consequences and implications. If they do not, then we have the freedom to deal with the reality before us without having to apologize.

The idea that women's intelligence is inferior, that girls should not learn Torah because it is too complicated for them—this is a notion that generally is discredited among intelligent people in our world-time. What possible value can there be in arguing in defense of untenable attitudes?

General evidence in modern education shows that girls are perfectly able to learn and to make great intellectual achievements. If women can win Nobel Prizes, if they can become doctors and lawyers and judges and engineers—why should they be unable to tackle the complexities of Talmud and halakha? Our eyes see that the understanding of women is not any lighter than that of men. We can understand why ancient and medieval rabbis wrote the way they did, because they lived in an environment where women generally were relegated to inferior status. But we cannot apply those outgrown attitudes to our contemporary life. We need to say: We are not “compromising” on halakha by educating our daughters in Torah; rather, we are establishing the halakha that women and girls must learn Torah commensurate with their abilities, which are equal to those of men and boys. (See R. Haim David Halevy, Aseh Lekha Rav, 2:52.)

It is difficult for Modern Orthodoxy to muster the courage to deal with such cases in a straightforward way. It is easier to surrender to an earlier world-time; or even to work out gradual compromises, which take a long time and which create much dissatisfaction. It is easier not to assume the responsibility for our generation. Because of the extreme caution of Orthodoxy not to “insult” the rabbis of previous generations, there is a reluctance to make any changes or to move in new directions.

This paralysis may be exemplified by the well-known blessing in our Siddur “shelo assani isha.” Based on a Talmudic statement (Menahot 43b), a man is obligated to bless God each day “for not having made me a woman.” This statement has been subject to much commentary, apologetics, controversy. In trying to explicate the real meaning of the statement, we can state that the blessing is not supposed to be anti-woman; rather, it is a way of thanking God for having given men extra mitzvoth that are not incumbent upon women. Granted that this statement was made with this meaning and that it intended no harm, the reality is that the statement in its present form is offensive to modern sensibilities. Trying to explain this blessing to daughters, to girls in religious school and day school, is not the easiest of tasks. In spite of all our apologetics, girls and women—if they are encouraged to think independently—resent the formulation of the blessing. Moreover, boys and men who recite the text may absorb, consciously or unconsciously, anti-female attitudes.

But once the text is in the Siddur—and has been there for centuries—who is willing to take responsibility to change it or to eliminate it? The right-wing Orthodox may believe that the statement is perfectly innocuous and reflects a genuine truth. Others may offer interpretations of the blessing to try to make it more acceptable to the modern sensibility. But isn’t it ludicrous for intelligent people today to argue in defense of a statement that is quite problematic, to say the least? A true modern Orthodox position would be to change the blessing to a more suitable formula, one that does not cast negative aspersions on women. Making such a change does not imply that we are more sensitive or more intelligent than our predecessors; it only reflects the fact that we are living in a different world-time and tha we are responding to the needs of our generation. “Yiftah bedoro kiShmuel bedoro.” We should not be hampered by the fact that the Conservative movment has made a change in the blessing’s formulation. We should be concerned with the situation, not with labels.

The Nahem Prayer

Let us consider one further example of the dissonance between ancient texts and contemporary reality. Rabbi Haim David Halevy initiated a change in a text of a prayer for Tisha b'Av— a change that was eminently intelligent. Yet he was criticized sharply by many people. On Tisha b'Av, we have the prayer that begins Nahem, which describes Jerusalem as a destroyed, and desolate city without its children. Rabbi Halevy said that the statement is no longer true. Jerusalem is filled with Jews, and is definitely not destroyed, humiliated, and desolate. How, therefore, can someone recite the traditional prayer when in fact the prayer is false? To recite this text would make us guilty of reciting falsehoods before God. Therefore, Rabbi Halevy changed parts of the Nahem text to the past tense, asking God to console the city that was destroyed, humiliated, and desolate (Aseh Lehha Rav, 1: 14). Rabbi Halevy defends his position eloquently (Aseh Lekha Rav,2:36-39). It is indeed amazing that his position should have been criticized at all, since it is so perfectly sensible and understandable. Yet, such is the fear of change, that many were ready to criticize this ruling.

The same critics have no problem reciting a prayer to God that in fact includes an obvious lie: Jerusalem is not destroyed, humiliated, nor desolate of its children.

For Modern Orthodoxy to succeed in meeting its responsibility, it will be necessary for us to recognize that we are part of the contemporary world-time. We should have a blue ribbon panel composed of Modern Orthodox rabbinic scholars who will be willing to evaluate the above examples as well as so many others, and to come up with specific halakhic rulings for our generation. If we have the confidence and good sense to lead, we may be surprised to find that many people are ready to follow. It is up to us to bring Orthodoxy into the modern generation and world-time.

Religion and Superstition: A Maimonidean Approach

Judaism seeks to bring us closer to God through proper thought and deed. Superstition seeks to circumvent God's power through the use of magical formulae or rituals. While Judaism demands intellectual and moral excellence and a direct relationship with God, superstition provides purported means of bypassing or manipulating God in order to ward off evil or to achieve some other desired goal.

Since religion and superstition ultimately transcend the domain of human reason, it is possible to blur the lines between the two. The Torah is emphatic in commanding that we not turn to shamans or wonderworkers, but that we stay focused on our personal relationship with God. "There shall not be found among you anyone... who uses divination, a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or one who consults a ghost or a familiar spirit, or a necromancer. For whoever does these things is an abomination unto the Lord" (Devarim 18:10-12).

Rambam clarifies the boundaries between religion and superstition in his discussion about using incantations to heal a wound:

Anyone who whispers a charm over a wound and reads a verse from the Torah, or one who recites a biblical verse over a child lest he be terrified, or one who places a Torah scroll or tefillin over an infant to enable him to sleep, are not only included in the category of sorcerers and charmers, but are included among those who repudiate the Torah. They use the words of the Torah as a physical cure, whereas they are exclusively a cure for the soul, as it is written, ‘they will be life to your soul.' On the other hand, one who is enjoying good health is permitted to recite biblical verses, or a psalm, that he may be shielded and saved from affliction and damage by virtue of the reading. (Hilkhot Avoda Zara, 11:12)

What are the characteristics of those individuals who "repudiate the Torah"? 1) They treat biblical verses as though they are magic formulae that can effect a cure. 2) They use religious objects e.g. Torah scroll, tefillin, as though they are endowed with independent magical powers. 3) They resort to incantations and magical rituals, rather than turning directly to God. In short, they behave superstitiously, rather than religiously.

If we were to confront these individuals, though, they would be surprised to be placed in the category of those who "repudiate the Torah". They might well think of themselves as being pious, Torah-true Jews. After all, they have not gone to soothsayers or diviners for help; they have recited the holy words of the Bible and have used religious items of our own Jewish tradition. Wherein have they sinned? The Rambam would answer: even if a person employs Torah words and symbols, he/she may yet be guilty of sinful behavior. To use the Torah's words and symbols in a superstitious way is also superstition! Indeed, such behavior repudiates the Torah's express teaching that we turn directly to God and that we not engage in magical practices.

The Rambam notes that if a healthy person chants biblical verses in the hope that the merit of this mitzvah will invite God's protection, this is still on the correct side of the line separating religion from superstition. The person is not attributing intrinsic supernatural power to the biblical verses; rather, he is directing his thoughts to God Himself, and hopes that the merit of his biblical readings will engender God's protection. Although this may not be an example of religion at its best, it is permissible-and not in the category of repudiating the Torah.

In the laws of Mezuzah (5:4), Rambam cites another case in which he distinguishes between religious and superstitious behavior.

There is a widespread custom to write the word Shaddai on the outer side of the Mezuzah, opposite the blank space between the two sections. Since it is written on the outside, there is no harm done. On the other hand, those who write inside the Mezuzah names of angels or names of saintly men, some biblical verse or some charms, are included among those who have no share in the world to come. Those fools not only fail to fulfill the commandment but they treat an important precept, which conveys God's Oneness as well as the love and worship of Him, as if it were an amulet to benefit themselves, since they foolishly believe that the Mezuzah is something advantageous for the vain pleasures of this world.

Here, too, the Rambam chastises those who treat a religious object as though it were a magical charm. People are included among "those who have no share in the world to come" even if they themselves may think they are acting piously. Rambam makes it clear that superstitious behavior-even if cloaked in traditional religious symbols-is a serious transgression of the Torah's teachings.

What leads people to superstitious behavior? Why doesn't everyone realize the foolishness of employing magical incantations and rites? Why would people rely on superstitious behavior rather than turning directly to God with their prayers?

Here are a few reasons:

True religion demands a lot from us. Superstition demands very little. True religion requires that we confront God directly. Superstition offers short cuts, ways to bypass that awe-inspiring confrontation with God.
Superstitious practices have been sanctioned by generations of people who seem to have religious credibility. If these great ones believed in demons and made amulets, then these things must be permissible (in spite of the Rambam's rulings).
When people are afraid and desperate, they may suspend their reason in order to adopt superstitious practices-"just in case" these might be efficacious. Why take chances by not trying everything?
A great challenge for religious leadership is to wean people from superstitious tendencies and bring them closer to God. People need to be reminded to use their reason, rather than to surrender to a mindless supernaturalism. The Torah itself was well aware of the human weakness of turning to diviners and magicians-and the Torah strictly forbade such practices that obstruct a direct relationship with God. Religion teaches responsibility, careful thinking, and reliance on God. Superstition promotes avoidance of personal responsibility, suspension of rational thinking, and reliance on supernatural forces other than God.

There are pressures within contemporary Orthodox Jewish life that foster a superstitious, rather than a true religious, view of Judaism. On the surface, these negative factors appear in the garb of religious words and symbols; yet, just as in the misuse of Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzot cited in the passages from Rambam earlier, these tendencies reflect the unfortunate and misguided features of superstition. That these behaviors pass themselves off as being authentic Orthodox Judaism should be a source of concern and anguish to all thinking Orthodox Jews.


1. I (along with many others) periodically receive a brochure from an organization that provides charity to needy individuals and families. The brochure includes abundant pictures of saintly-looking men with long white beards, engaged in Torah study and prayer, and signing their names on behalf of this charity. The brochure promises us that "the Gedolei Hador are the official members of the organization." One of the Gedolei Hador is quoted to say: "All who contribute to [this charity] merit to see open miracles." We are asked to contribute to this cause so that the Gedolei Hador will pray on our behalf. We even are given choices of what merit we would like to receive from these prayers: to have nahat from our children; to have children; to find a worthy mate; to earn an easy livelihood. "Urgent requests are immediately forwarded to the home of the Gedolei Hador." If we are willing to contribute so much per name, we are guaranteed that a minyan of outstanding talmidei hakhamim will pray for us at the Kotel. If we contribute a lesser amount, we only will have the prayer recited by one outstanding talmid hakham. We are also told that we can write our request as a kvitel and it will be placed in the Kotel for forty days; we can even transmit our prayer requests by telephone hotline, after we have made a contribution via credit card.

This charity purports not only to be Torah-true, but to have the involvement and backing of the Gedolei Hador. Anyone looking at the brochure would see this as an Orthodox Jewish charity operated by highly religious individuals.

Let us grant that this is indeed a worthy charity that provides assistance to needy Jews. Let us grant that the people who operate this charity see themselves as pious Jews of the highest caliber, literally linked to the Gedolei Hador. Yet, the brochure is not an example of true religion at all, but of something far more akin to superstition.

Is it appropriate for a Gadol Hador to assure contributors that they will be worthy of open miracles? Can anyone rightfully speak on behalf of the Almighty's decisions relating to doing open miracles? Doesn't this statement reflect a belief that prayers uttered by so-called sages (similar to incantations uttered by shamans?!) can control God's actions, even to the extent of making Him do miracles?

Moreover, why should people be made to feel that they are not qualified to pray to God directly? Why should "religious leaders" promote the notion that if people will pay money, some pious individual will recite a prayer at the Kotel-and that the prayer uttered by such an individual at the Kotel is more efficacious than one's own prayers? How tasteless and contrary to religious values is the notion that a minyan of outstanding talmidei hakhamim will pray if you pay enough; but only one will pray for you if you choose to contribute less than the recommended sum?

In this brochure, dressed as it is in the garb of Torah-true religion, we have a blatant example of superstition-tainted Judaism. The leaders of this organization assume: 1) Gedolei Hador (we are not told who decides who is a Gadol Hador, nor why any Gadol Hador would want to run to the Kotel to pray every time a donor called in an "urgent request") have greater powers to pray than anyone else. 2) A Gadol Hador can promise us open miracles if we send in a donation. 3) A prayer uttered at the holy site of the Kotel has more value than a prayer uttered elsewhere i.e. the Kotel is treated as a sacred, magical entity. 4) A kvitel placed in a crevice in the Kotel has religious value and efficacy. This brochure relies on the public's gullible belief in the supernatural powers of Gedolei Hador and the Kotel.

Lest one think this charity is the only Orthodox Jewish group that promotes a superstitious (rather than truly religious) viewpoint, one may do a google search and find others who do pretty much the same thing. The Wailing Wall Kvitel Service advertises that it will deliver your personal prayers or requests to the Lord "even if you cannot travel to the holy land to visit Jerusalem in person." We are assured that once this Service receives our kvitel and donation, the kvitel will be placed between the stones of the Kotel and "you will receive a postcard from the wailing wall."

Nor is this behavior restricted to the "hareidi" sector of Orthodoxy. One website informs us that Jews and non-Jews have long had the practice of writing their private thoughts and prayers and having them inserted into the cracks of the Kotel "in the firm belief that at this holiest of locales God is always present and listening." (Doesn't Judaism believe that God is always present and listening everywhere?) The sponsors of this website which promises to insert the kvitels "on a same day basis", have also arranged with a kollel in Jerusalem to have Tehillim recited for the ill or to have Torah studied in someone's memory. This program is staffed by volunteers of the Orthodox Union, a mainstream Orthodox organization!

The Jewish Press of March 19, 2008 reported on the trip to Israel by Senator John McCain who traveled with Senator Joe Lieberman. The article included a photograph of Senator McCain placing a kvitel in the Kotel! He obviously was told that this was the "religiously correct" thing to do, bringing this practice to another level of public acceptance. Senator Barack Obama, on his recent trip to Israel, also placed a kvitel in the Kotel, also having been advised that this was the proper thing to do.

The Jerusalem Post (April 15, 2008) ran a news item reporting that the Rabbi of the Kotel and his assistants clean out the kvitels from the Kotel twice a year, before Pessah and Rosh HaShanah. They do so in order to make room for the millions of kvitels that come in from all over the world, from Jews and non-Jews. The kvitels are put into plastic-lined bins and then brought to the Mount of Olives cemetery for burial. The custom of the kvitels is raised to a level of holiness.

Certainly, those who write kvitels do so with a sense of piety, with a sincere desire to get their prayers to God. Yet, shouldn't religious leaders be telling people that they ought to bring their prayers to God-by praying directly to Him. There is no need whatever to write out prayers for deposit in the Kotel. On the contrary, this practice smacks of superstition, relying on magical powers that are attributed to the Kotel rather than on direct prayer to God.

Defenders of the kvitel practice will argue: this is an age-old custom, approved or tolerated by great sages; this is a harmless custom that doesn't hurt anyone; this is a way for people to feel that their words will have a better chance of reaching God. In response, we can say that there are various beliefs and practices that were approved or tolerated by great sages in the past-but that are more akin to superstition than religion e.g. belief in demons (sheidim and mazikim), writing and wearing magical amulets, conducting ceremonies to ward off evil spirits etc. The fact that great people believed or did these things does not make these things correct. The Rambam condemned those who used Torah scrolls, tefillin or mezuzot as magic charms-and I would assume that there were rabbis before (and after) his time who approved or tolerated these practices. The Rambam attempted to make people see the difference between religion and superstition; unfortunately, not everyone wanted to accept this distinction, but preferred to remain attached to superstitious beliefs and practices.

Superstitious practices do cause harm. According to Rambam, severe punishments (including loss of one's portion in the world to come!) are meted out to those who engage in superstitious rites. Moreover, a superstitious approach to Judaism undermines its intellectual and rational foundations, treating it more as a cult than a religion. This is a vast disservice to Judaism, and turns intelligent and reasonable people away from Torah.

People may feel that superstitious behavior is a way to gain supernatural results-but this feeling is repudiated by the Torah. Rabbis and teachers need to remind the community that one need not-and should not-seek superstitious means of controlling or appeasing God. Rather, people should be reminded of their right and responsibility to pray directly to God on their own, without needing to resort to the supposed powers of holy men, holy objects, holy places.

2. Another example of the fostering of superstition over religion relates to the recitation of the mourner's kaddish. The kaddish is a beautiful prayer, glorifying God's greatness and redemptive power. The text of the kaddish is ancient, and originally was recited as a prayer following a Torah study session (Sotah 49a). It seems to have been adopted as a mourner's prayer only in the 13th century, and became a widespread practice throughout the Jewish world with the passage of time.

Certainly, the kaddish has become imbued with deep emotion and religious feeling among mourners. It is meritorious for a mourner to chant this prayer, as a means of showing respect for the memory of a loved one and even as a way to add merit to the soul of the deceased.

Yet, it must be remembered that the kaddish is a prayer, not a magical incantation. A member of my Congregation, originally from Israel, recently returned to Israel for the burial of his father and for the Shiva period. A rabbi of the Hevra Kaddisha there informed him that he was obligated to say kaddish each day in order to get his father into heaven. If the mourner was not sure he could say kaddish each day, he should pay the Hevra Kaddisha a certain sum, and they would guarantee a daily recital of kaddish-thereby insuring the father's acceptance into heaven.

My congregant called me to ascertain whether the rabbi of the Hevra Kaddisha was giving him correct information. The answer: it is virtuous to recite the kaddish, and it is virtuous to give charity. When a mourner does virtuous deeds in memory of a deceased loved one, this is a tribute to the deceased. In some spiritual sense, the righteous deeds of the mourners may bring repose to the soul of the loved one. Moreover, the recitation of kaddish helps the mourner cope more meaningfully with the loss of a loved one.

However, it is not correct to treat the kaddish as a magic formula. Until the 13th century, kaddish was not recited for deceased loved ones-and yet surely God did not deprive them of their eternal reward. Also, God is the One who alone deals with the souls of the departed, and He surely judges people fairly. It would be ludicrous to think that God withholds justice depending on whether a mourner recites kaddish or not.

For many Jews, including pious Orthodox Jews, kaddish is treated as though it is a magic incantation rather than a prayer glorifying God's greatness. People go to extraordinary lengths to recite the kaddish in a minyan. In itself, this is a virtue. Yet, if they do so because they believe the kaddish is a magic formula to gain entry to heaven for the deceased, then the practice obviously passes into the domain of superstition.

3. Another indication of superstitious trends in Jewish life is the tendency to rely on "good luck" charms e.g. red string tied around the wrist; food or drink blessed by certain kabbalistic sages. I have known cases of otherwise rational people who have turned to "wonder workers" for help in saving a mortally ill loved one. Medical doctors have been unable to save the patient; out of desperation, relatives have asked for "spiritual" cures. In one case, a "saintly" rabbi was flown in from Israel to pray at the bedside of a dying child. (The child unfortunately died.) In another case, a "saintly" rabbi received a contribution after which he sent to a sick patient a bottle of Arak that he had blessed. (That patient also died.) It happens sometimes that people recover from their illnesses. When they do, they are ready to swear that the cure was the result of intervention by the saintly person who prayed for them or sent them holy things to eat or drink. This gives further fuel for desperately ill people to turn to magic workers for help; after all, it might do some good!

Although we can understand-and even sympathize-with this attitude, we must also state clearly that it represents a turn away from true religion and a turn toward superstition. As such, we should be teaching people to avoid falling into this way of thought and behavior. We should be urging people not to rely on red strings, or amulets, or foods/drinks blessed by "saintly" people: rather, they should turn their hearts and minds and souls entirely to God.

Rambam: Judaism and Reason

Rambam stressed the need for human beings to use their power of reason. Superstition is the antithesis of reason, and therefore a false path to truth. While philosophers surely understand this, what are we supposed to do with the masses who are more prone to fall into the ways of superstition? The answer is: we must teach the masses a philosophically sound and rational approach to religion. We must encourage people to use their powers of reason.

Rambam disdained those who were content to espouse truth on the basis of blind faith, without attempting to establish the intellectual foundations of truth. People who do not use their reason are deficient even in their faith; they are prone to superstition and are gullible to the pronouncements of charismatic (even if misguided) authority figures.

Rambam pointed out that there are things accepted as truth-which are not in fact true. Human reason is necessary as a constant and reliable agent to challenge, verify or reject long-held "truths". Just because a great authority taught something does not ensure that it is true. Indeed, truth stands on its own merit, not on the basis of the opinions of human beings.

For when something has been demonstrated, the correctness of the matter is not increased and certainty regarding it is not strengthened by the consensus of all men of knowledge with regard to it. Nor could its correctness be diminished and certainty regarding it be weakened even if all the people on earth disagreed with it.(Guide, II:13)

In his Mishneh Torah (Laws of Sanctification of the New Moon, 17:24), Rambam states that many books on astronomy and mathematics were composed by Greek sages. Similar works by ancient Jewish sages of the tribe of Issachar have not come down to us.

Since all these rules have been established by sound and clear proofs, free from any flaw and irrefutable, we need not be concerned about the identity of their authors, whether they be Hebrew Prophets or Gentile sages. For when we have to do with rules and propositions which have been demonstrated by good reasons and have been verified to be true by sound and flawless proofs, we rely upon the author who has discovered them or transmitted them only because of his demonstrated proofs and verified reasoning.

Intelligent people need to distinguish between what is true and what is spurious. Surely, we may rely on the wisdom of the prophets and rabbinic sages, just as we rely on the advice of skilled physicians or experts in other fields. Yet, even when receiving advice from these authorities, we should not suspend personal judgment altogether. In his Epistle to Yemen, Rambam warns:

Do not consider a statement true because you find it in a book, for the prevaricator is as little restrained with his pen as with his tongue. For the untutored and uninstructed are convinced of the veracity of a statement by the mere fact that it is written; nevertheless its accuracy must be demonstrated in another manner.[1]

Just because "authorities" and "scholars" have claimed something to be true does not make it true. Rambam, in his Letter on Astrology, remarks that "fools have composed thousands of books of nothingness and emptiness".[2] Men "great in years but not in wisdom" wasted much time studying these worthless books and came to think of themselves as experts. They taught nonsense to the public, imagining that they were conveying truth. Unsuspecting people believed these "experts" because they seemed to be erudite and convincing.

Rambam explains that we should only accept something as reliably true if it belongs to one of three categories. 1) It is proven clearly by human reasoning such as arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. 2) It is perceived with certainty through one of the five senses. 3) It is received from the prophets or the righteous. In considering whether or not something is true, we must determine through which category we have derived its truthfulness. If we cannot verify something through one of these three categories, we cannot accept it as being true.

A dilemma arises. Rambam categorically rejects the validity of astrology, considering it a foolish superstition rather than a bona fide science. Yet, the Talmud and Midrashim record the opinions of righteous sages who themselves seemed to ascribe veracity to astrology! Thus, by Rambam's own standards of determining truth, shouldn't we believe in astrology since we have received this belief from the righteous? Rambam resolves this seeming problem:

It is not proper to abandon matters of reason that have already been verified by proofs, shake loose of them, and depend on the words of a single one of the sages from whom possibly the matter was hidden. Or there may be an allusion in those words; or they may have been said with a view to the times and the business before him. You surely know how many of the verses of the holy Torah are not to be taken literally. Since it is known through proofs of reason that it is impossible for the thing to be literally so, the Targum [Aramaic translator of the Torah] rendered it in a form that reason will abide. A man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in back.[3]

Once we have verified the truth of something on the basis of reason, we should not accept the literal meaning of texts that contradict this verified truth. If a sage has made a statement that violates a proven truth, then either 1) he was mistaken; 2) he was speaking in allegorical or poetic language, not to be taken literally; 3) he was speaking within the context of his time and place. If the Torah itself-which is Truth-records something that contradicts verified truth, then the Torah must be interpreted to conform to this established truth. For Rambam, it is axiomatic that the Torah of Truth cannot teach something that violates rational truth.

Rambam argued that reason was the best antidote to falling into a superstitious mindset. With all the risks of allowing people to use their reason, he thought it was essential to put religion on a philosophically sound basis. It was religiously and intellectually wrong to foster a fundamentalist, obscurantist, literalist view of religion that ascribed irrational teachings to the Bible and our Sages. If it is dangerous to rely on reason, it is even more dangerous to violate reason.


There are strong tendencies in our day (evident in other religions, as well as Judaism) that foster authoritarianism, obscurantism, and fundamentalism. These tendencies promote uncritical thinking, surrender of autonomy, and reliance on holy "authorities". These are ingredients that make for a superstitious worldview rather than a truly religious worldview.

Rambam's insistence on our use of reason is of vital importance to all who would like to reclaim a philosophically-sound Judaism. Rambam teaches us to separate between true religion and superstition; between direct confrontation with God and spurious use of magical charms and incantations; between proper teachers of Torah and counterfeit "sages" who play on human weakness and ignorance.

It is a central challenge of modern Orthodoxy to foster an intellectually meaningful Judaism; to combat tendencies toward superstitious belief and action; to encourage individual responsibility and direct relationship with God. It is time to reclaim the lofty vision of Rambam of a Torah Judaism rooted in reason, that leads to a life of "lovingkindness, righteousness and judgment" (Guide 3:54).

[1] A Maimonides Reader, ed. Isidore Twersky (Springfield: Behrman House, 1972), p.454. For a fine discussion of Rambam's views on superstition, see Marc B. Shapiro, "Maimonidean Halakhah and Superstition", in his book Studies in Maimonides and his Interpreters, University of Scranton Press, Scranton and London, 2008, pp.95-150.

[2] Ibid., pp. 464-5.

[3] Ibid., p. 472.

When Jews Undermine the Jewish State and the Jewish People

Some years ago, I read about a German Jew who established a "Jewish Nazi Society" during the 1930s. While Jews throughout Germany (and Europe in general) were facing horrible anti-Jewish persecutions, this Jewish man internalized the vicious anti-Semitic propaganda to such an extent that he also became a Jew-hater. Perhaps he thought that by identifying as a Nazi, he would be spared personally from the anti-Jewish persecutions. He wanted to be considered as "a good Jew" in the eyes of the Nazis, rather than be accounted among the "bad" Jews whom the Nazis were tormenting.

 I don't know what ultimately happened to the members of the "Jewish Nazi Society", but I doubt that they were spared by the Nazi hate machine. The Nazis hated Jews for having Jewish blood, regardless of their beliefs or political leanings. Jewish Nazis were just as despicable to Nazis as any other Jews. The Jewish Nazis were despised by Jews for their treachery; and despised by Nazis for their Jewishness.

These thoughts came to mind as I contemplated the phenomenon of Jews in our time who struggle to undermine Israel, and who identify themselves with those who strive to destroy the Jewish State. These individuals seem to suffer from the same psychological problems as members of the "Jewish Nazi Society" in Germany. Israel is constantly barraged by its enemies--through terrorism, economic boycotts, political isolation, anti-Israel propaganda, threats of war and nuclear destruction. To the enemies of Israel, the Jewish State is the object of blind, unmitigated hatred. The enemies use every possible forum to malign Israel and deny its legitimacy. This unceasing war against Israel is resisted courageously by the Jewish State, by Jewish supporters of Israel, by millions of non-Jewish supporters of Israel.

It is bizarre and morally repugnant that the one tiny Jewish country in the world has to suffer so much abuse. It is a matter of honor to stand up for Israel and to remind the world of the right of the Jews to their own homeland. We need to counter the attacks against Israel in every forum. We need to speak truth to combat the unceasing stream of lies heaped up against Israel.

Does this mean that we must agree with and condone everything that Israel does? Of course not. Israelis themselves are vocal in their criticisms of aspects of Israeli life and government policies. As long as criticisms are voiced with love, they should be welcome. They help shake the status quo and move things in a better direction. But criticism must be balanced with an appreciation of the amazingly impressive positive aspects of the Jewish State.

While fair and loving critics are vital to Israel's welfare, haters are destructive. Haters do not seek to improve Israel--they seek to destroy it. Their goal is not to encourage a vibrant, flourishing Jewish State--their goal is to eliminate the Jewish State. The hatred is so blind and so intense, that it is oblivious to facts and figures. For haters, Israel is guilty just by existing. It is particularly regrettable when people of Jewish ancestry align themselves with the haters. In some perverse way, they may think this separates them from the fate of Israel and the Jewish people--they think they will be viewed as "the good Jews" in contrast with the Zionists who are viewed as "the bad Jews". But such Jews are despised by Jews as traitors, and are despised (or mocked) by the haters of Israel--because after all, these hating Jews are still Jews! The enemies are happy to use such people for propaganda purposes; but if they were ever to succeed in their wicked designs, these hating Jews would not fare well. Their treachery to Israel and their fellow Jews would not make them beloved by the enemies of Jews and Israel.

We have read recently of Jewish haters/self-haters who have participated in-- and even spearheaded-- anti-Israel boycotts. We have read of Israeli professors/left wing intellectuals who have participated in anti-Israel programs on college campuses throughout the world. We have read columns by Jewish journalists that are so blatantly unfair to Israel that it makes us shudder. We have learned of Jewish groups and individuals who blame Israel for every ill suffered by Palestinians, even when most of the blame rests with the Palestinian leadership. We have heard Jewish voices decrying Israel's defense of its border with Gaza, even though the stated intent of Hamas is to murder and kidnap as many Israelis as possible...and ultimately to wipe Israel off the map.

For some critics, everyone in the world seems to have rights...except Jews. Every nation in the world has the right to defend its citizens...except Israel.  These are positions which must be repudiated by all fair-minded people. These are positions which most surely should be repudiated by the victims of such views...the Jews themselves.

Remembering Mom: Thoughts for Mother's Day

Remembering Mom: Thoughts for Mother's Day

by Rabbi Marc D. Angel 

(Below is an essay I wrote, included in my book The Wisdom of Solomon and Us, Jewish Lights, 2016, pp. 135-138.)

My mother, Rachel Romey Angel, was born in 1914 in Seattle, Washington, the second of seven children born to Marco and Sultana Romey—both immigrants from Turkey. Although my grandparents were born and raised in Turkey, their first language was Judeo-Spanish, the language of the Sephardic Jews scattered throughout the former Ottoman Empire. My mother did not learn to speak English until she attended kindergarten in public school.

The Sephardic immigrants of Seattle came to America with little money and little formal education, but with a tremendous desire to make a new and better life for themselves and their families. The first generation immigrants worked at various trades; their children went on to own stores and other businesses; their grandchildren were nearly all university educated professionals and business people.

My mother was “only a girl.” In those days and in that society, it was assumed that girls would marry at an early age and have families of their own. Girls did not need much education, only basic domestic skills such as cooking and sewing. In the milieu of my mother’s childhood, it was highly unusual for a woman to attend university or to hold a serious job outside the home.

My mother was a brilliant student, but when she turned 16—the legal age that one was required to attend school—my grandfather told her she had to quit school and get a job to help support the family. Her older sister had done that and was working in a candy factory, and my grandfather wanted my mother to do likewise. My mother told her teachers at Garfield High School that she was going to be leaving school to go to work. One of the teachers was so distressed by this news that she spoke with my grandfather, urging him to let my mother graduate from high school. She told him that his daughter was a wonderful student with an excellent mind; if given the opportunity, she could attend university and do great things with her life. My grandfather replied: “she’s only a girl; she doesn’t need more education; she has to go to work and earn money.”

Thus ended my mother’s academic career. She never graduated from high school. She worked in the candy factory for a few years, got married at age 21, and went on to have four children, and eventually twelve grandchildren. She was a voracious reader, a deep thinker, and a keen observer of human nature. Neither her husband nor their close group of friends had a college graduate among them, so my mother was sort of a closet intellectual. She functioned happily and successfully in her world, but she kept her intellectual, philosophical side pretty much to herself. If she had been born two generations later, she would have been a university graduate, probably a Ph.D., and she would have had opportunities in academia, public life or business that were totally out of reach for her in her time and place.

Was my mother a success? Was she happy? Did she fulfill her mission in life? The answer to these questions depends on how we evaluate success, happiness and fulfillment in life. If we deem someone successful, happy and fulfilled if she earned a good income, lived a prosperous life, earned an academic degree, and held responsible positions in professional life—then my mother did not meet these requirements.

But my mother was a remarkable woman. She was a loyal daughter, devoted wife, loving mother and grandmother, gracious hostess, excellent friend. She was a profound thinker, an avid reader, a talented knitter. She enjoyed the simple pleasures of life. She was good and kind, thoughtful, and highly principled. If measured by standards of quality rather than quantity, my mother was eminently successful, happy and fulfilled in life.

When King Solomon praises the “woman of valor,” he refers to the virtues of being a good wife and mother, a hard-worker on behalf of her family, a generous soul who is charitable and kind. The Hebrew word for valor, hayyil, has the connotation of strength and courage. The “ideal” woman is not identified as being passive and obedient, but rather as having a strong character focused on her life’s values and goals.

When reading the last passages of Mishlei today, one is struck by how much society has changed in recent generations. Women today have far more opportunities in education, professions, public life and business than had been true for women in many societies of the past. But this success has also come with trade-offs. In pursuing careers, women may defer or forego the joys of a solid marriage, child-rearing, and being full-time mothers. Are the modern “liberated” women more successful, happier, and more fulfilled than the women of my mother’s pattern of life? In some ways, yes; in other ways, probably not.

I remember reading somewhere that in our modern society a woman is considered creative if she produces a piece of sculpture or operates her own business. But if a woman is “merely” a mother who creates children, shapes their lives, and sees to it that they can lead happy and good lives, she is labeled somewhat pejoratively as “only being a housewife.” A full-time wife and mother is deemed to be on a lower level than women who devote their energies to professional or business life.

If my mother had been given more opportunities to develop her intellect and talents, she would have had a significant impact on many people beyond her immediate circle of family and friends. She would have been gratified to learn more and teach more, and to play a greater role in the larger society. She would have been very happy to have many of the opportunities which were available to her own daughter, daughters-in-law and granddaughters.

But having said that, her own life evaluated in its own context was a remarkably happy, meaningful and successful adventure. She was grateful for what she had and what she was able to achieve. She was beautiful and graceful; she feared the Lord; she loved and was loved; she raised and inspired her children; she left an indelible impact on her grandchildren. “She shall be praised.”

Masquerade: Thoughts for Purim-- by Rabbi Marc D. Angel

At least since the sixteenth century, Purim celebrations have included costumes and masquerade parties. Various explanations have been given.

The Purim story is replete with surprises. Things are not what they initially seem to be. Esther pretends not to be Jewish and masquerades as a Persian Queen. Mordecai wears sackcloth and ashes but is later dressed up as viceroy to the king. The king appears to be all powerful but he is an indecisive hedonist who allots real power to others. Haman seems to be in control but ends up being hanged on a tree on which he had hoped to hang Mordecai. When the Jews ultimately prevail, many of their one time enemies were “mityahadim,” appearing to be Jews themselves. Even God, whose name is not mentioned in Megillat Esther, seems to be hiding.

Masquerade: wearing a costume, playing a role, pretending to be someone other than yourself, hiding your true identity.

Masquerade: putting on a mask, camouflaging reality, creating false illusions.

Once a year, on Purim, Jews indulge in games of make believe, where the line between reality and illusion is blurred. Many other groups similarly have a day (or more) for masquerade balls and parades. Somehow, letting down our guard on one day enables us to face reality squarely all the other days of the year.

In describing the impact of a mask on its wearer, Elias Canetti notes: “As long as he wears it he is two things, himself and the mask…Because it can be torn away, its wearer is bound to fear for it. He must take care that he does not lose it; it must never be dropped and must never open. He feels every kind of anxiety about what may happen to it….He must manipulate it, remaining his everyday self, and, at the same time, must change into it as a performer. While he wears the mask he is thus two people and must remain two during the whole of his performance” (Crowds and Power, Seabury Press, NY, 1978, p. 377).

One wearing a mask wishes to preserve the illusion of being someone else. Being unmasked would ruin everything. So the mask wearer tries to protect the illusion by staying in control of the mask. No one must be allowed to get past the mask. The mask wearer becomes two people: the real self and the play actor wearing a mask.

But what happens if the mask wearer comes to identify totally with the mask?

Much human tragedy is the result of people forgetting who they are at root; they don various masks and personae, pretending to be what they in fact are not. They may imagine that they can only be successful or happy if they adopt a certain persona, if they betray their selves for the sake of winning the approval of others. The psychiatrist, Dr. Arno Gruen, has pointed out: “We establish irrational ideals of the ‘real’ man and the ‘right kind’ of woman, which not only separate us more and more from our genuine potentialities, but in the long run also lead us into self-destructiveness” (The Betrayal of the Self, Grove Press, NY, 1988, p. 60).

People, in their desire to be popular, often end up play-acting. They dress, speak, laugh, socialize—the way they expect that others want them to dress, speak, laugh and socialize. To gain approval, they will wear whatever mask they think will advance them.

Happily, many people are authentic, natural and good. They strive not to wear masks, not to pose as someone other than who they are. When they do feel that they are acting artificially, they are wise enough to catch themselves.

But so many others seem to be play-acting; they pretend to be what they are not; they create an image of themselves and want others to think that the image is true. Perceptive people can see through the mask; they pity the mask-wearers who must spend so much energy trying to live up to a false image of themselves. The mask-wearers are terrified by those who would unmask them.

Masquerades are fine if one realizes that they are infrequent descents into fantasy. Masquerades are destructive if the mask-wearers cease to distinguish between themselves and their masks.

Purim is a reminder that there is a fine line between reality and illusion. Blurring that line once a year underscores how easily one might lose sight of truth and authenticity. But after the day of masquerading, we are supposed to have come to a better understanding of who we are under the mask…and who we are when we don’t wear masks.

Voices of the Western Sephardic Tradition in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century America

Rabbi Dr. Sabato Morais


Rabbi Dr. Sabato Morais (April 13, 1823–November 11, 1897) was described by a New York Yiddish newspaper as “without doubt…the greatest of all Orthodox rabbis in the United States.” This encomium was written several years after the death of Morais, when a full picture of his life and accomplishments could be written with historical perspective.

Few today remember this remarkable religious leader; even fewer see him as a model of enlightened Orthodox Judaism whose example might be followed by modern-day Jews. Yet, Sabato Morais was a personality who deserves our attention—and our profound respect.

Born in Livorno, of Portuguese-Jewish background, he was raised in the Sephardic traditions of his community. As a young rabbi, he became the Director of the Orphan’s School of the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation of London, where he served for five years. In 1851, he began serving as rabbi of Congregation Mikveh Israel, the historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of Philadelphia. He remained with Mikveh Israel for nearly five decades, until his death toward the end of 1897.

Rabbi Dr. Alan Corre, who served as rabbi of Mikveh Israel from 1955 to 1963, wrote an appreciation of his early predecessor. He noted that “in everything he [Morais] writes and does, he comes across as a warm, loving, eminently humane individual, with self-respect, yet remarkably free of egotism for a man in public life who was the recipient of much honor, including an honorary degree from the University of Pennsylvania.” Rabbi Morais sought “to live as a Jew without qualifiers, one who revered and loved the Jewish tradition and desired greatly to perpetuate it.”

Dr. Corre has pointed out that Rabbi Morais is somewhat of an enigma to many, in the sense that he cannot be easily classified according to the ideologies and styles of the major branches of American Jewish life today:


Orthodox as he was in practice, he does not fulfill the role model of the Talmudic sage, and has about him a somewhat assimilated air at which the strictly Orthodox might well look askance. For the Conservative, he is insufficiently innovative, too unwilling to take religious risks. And of Reform, he was a life-long opponent.


Rabbi Morais was a fine representative of the Western Sephardic rabbinic tradition of his time. Western Sephardim valued general culture, refinement, orderliness, and social responsibility. They fostered a Judaism that was loyal to traditional ritual, while at the same time being worldly and intellectually open. Personal piety was to be humble, not ostentatious.

Rabbi Morais wrote: “True worship resides in the heart, and truly it is by purifying our hearts that we best worship God; still, the ordinances which we are enjoined to perform aim at this object: to sanctify our immortal soul, to make it worthy of its sublime origin.”

He laid great stress on ethical behavior, on compassion, on concern for others. He worked not only on behalf of the Jewish community, but showed concern for society as a whole. He was a vocal opponent of slavery and an avid admirer of President Abraham Lincoln. He supported the cause of American Indians; he spoke against the Chinese Exclusion Acts during the 1880s. He cried out against the persecution of Armenians in 1895. Working together with Jewish and non-Jewish clergy, he fostered an ecumenical outlook that called for all people to respect each other and to work for shared goals to improve the quality of life for everyone. In all of his work, Rabbi Morais did not seek glory or public recognition. He was compassionate, graceful, and idealistic. Perhaps it was his self-effacing style that won him so much admiration and respect from so many. They saw him as an authentic religious personality, not as one who was serving his own ego.

Arthur Kiron, in a fascinating article that appeared in American Jewish History, September 1996, observed that “those who knew and loved Morais repeatedly referred to him in their memorial tributes in idealized terms, as a religious role model, a prophet like Jeremiah, a man of constancy, duty, absolute sincerity, piety, and humility.”

One of Morais’s eulogizers described him as follows:


For the critical eye of man [Morais] has left behind no visible monuments of great achievements, but to the eye of God he has reared a monument far greater than any of those famed by man. That greatness was his goodness, which in point of intrinsic merit will compare with the greatest wonders of genius. Were it possible for man to measure the amount of good he dispensed among the sorrowing and afflicted…the historian would not hesitate to enroll his name among the world’s truest and noblest immortals….To do good was the first duty of his creed, to do it in silence always, and in secrecy wherever possible, was his second.


Rabbi Morais and his New York colleague Rabbi Henry Pereira Mendes were co-founders of the Jewish Theological Seminary. They had hoped that this institution would train American-born Orthodox rabbis to lead congregations throughout America. These two rabbis of the Spanish and Portuguese Congregations of Philadelphia and New York worked closely on other communal projects, always in a spirit of devotion to God and community. They both sought to promote a Judaism loyal to tradition, committed to social justice, marked by dignity and gravitas.

Orthodoxy of today is often characterized by increasing narrowness, obscurantism, authoritarianism, and xenophobia. Orthodox rabbis of the ilk of Rabbi Morais are a vanishing breed. The classic Western Sephardic religious worldview is on the verge of extinction. What a phenomenal loss this is for Judaism and the Jewish People!

Yet, as we remember the life of Rabbi Sabato Morais, we know that the memory of the righteous is a blessing. It continues to influence and inspire. The stature and vision of Rabbi Morais will emerge to guide new generations in an Orthodox Judaism that is faithful to tradition, cultured, refined, genuinely pious, humane, and humble. “Happy the man who has found wisdom, the man who has obtained understanding.”




The following is excerpted from Marc D. Angel, Remnant of Israel: A Portrait of America’s First Jewish Congregation—Shearith Israel, Riverside Books, New York, 2004.)


The 1880s ushered in a period of mass immigration, with many hundreds of thousands of Jews among those seeking a new life in America. Some immigrants were fleeing oppression, and some were simply seeking a better life for themselves and their families. The image of America as a promised land with streets paved of gold attracted the poor and downtrodden of Europe. Between 1880 and 1900, the U.S. population surged 50 percent, from 50 million to 75 million.

Among the throngs of Jewish immigrants were many who were fleeing the pogroms and persecutions in Tsarist Russia. Most entered the country though the port of New York, and a large majority remained in New York City and environs. To Americanized Jews, their incoming coreligionists posed new challenges. The newcomers, for the most part, were poor, unfamiliar with English, and unskilled by American standards. They were very much “old country” in their garb, language, religious outlook, and manners. They needed places to live, jobs, schools for their children, and medical care. In short, they needed help in adapting to American life.

The Jewish immigrants crowded into tenements on the Lower East Side of New York, eventually also spreading out to other neighborhoods in uptown Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. The native American Jewish community established agencies to help the immigrants, and expended considerable energy and resources to assist them. Certainly, there were sometimes tensions between them culturally, economically, and socially. Yet, to the credit of the New York Jewish community in particular—and American Jewry in general—much good work was done to assist in the absorption of the immigrants into American life.


Emma Lazarus


Emma Lazarus (1849–1887), a descendant of old and distinguished Shearith Israel families, became an ardent spokesperson on behalf of these immigrants. She spent time with Russian-Jewish families in their tenement homes and sought ways to alleviate their misery. A noted poet in her day, she expressed her empathy with the plight of immigrants and gave voice to American idealism at its finest. Her poem, “The New Colossus” was inscribed on a plaque and affixed to the Statue of Liberty in 1903. In it, she wrote her now famous words:


Give me your tired, your poor

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

            Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

 I lift my lamp beside the golden door!


Among the millions of Jews who arrived in the United States between 1880 and 1924 were 30,000 to 40,000 Sephardim who were mostly from Turkey, the Balkan countries, Greece, and Syria. The existing Jewish agencies that helped immigrants were geared for Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazic Jews like themselves. They did not easily recognize the Sephardim as Jews because the Sephardim did not have what they thought of as typical “Jewish” names and because they did not speak Yiddish.

The Sisterhood [of Shearith Israel] established an “Oriental Committee,” whose sole task was to work with newly arrived Sephardim. The Sisterhood operated settlement houses on the Lower East Side specifically for the Sephardim. The one at 86 Orchard Street opened in 1913, and a larger one at 133 Eldridge Street opened in 1918. These settlement houses provide social services, advice, meeting places, youth programs, a Hebrew School, and even a synagogue.

Shearith Israel’s spiritual leader, Dr. Henry Pereira Mendes, was very interested in the welfare of the immigrant Sephardim. His assistant, Rabbi Dr. David de Sola Pool, worked most actively with the Sisterhood’s “Oriental Committee” and with the Sephardic immigrants themselves. He represented Sephardic interests at meetings of Jewish social workers and charity agencies, and wrote articles explaining their background and needs to the Jewish community at large.

Shearith Israel’s commitment to the Sephardic immigrants entailed a remarkable expenditure of time, effort, and money. Had Shearith Israel performed no other public service at the time, the congregation would still have reason for pride in its social action work. However, the social conscience of the congregation found expression in other causes as well. Several members of Shearith Israel made particularly notable contributions to the improvement of life in New York City—and well beyond.


Maud Nathan


Maud Nathan (1862–1946) was a social activist and a strong advocate of women’s rights. She was a leader in the women’s suffrage movement and was appointed by Theodore Roosevelt as the head of the women’s suffrage committee in his National Progressive Party. She became an international figure in the women’s rights movement, addressing conferences on the topic in such places as London, Lucerne, Stockholm, Budapest, The Hague, Canton, and Peking.

Maud Nathan was once confronted by an opponent of women’s rights. The critic asked her derisively: “Would you want your cook to vote?” She answered calmly: “He does!”

A member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Maud Nathan had deep roots in American life. A member of Shearith Israel, she was imbued with a commitment to public service. She was a founder, and the first President, of Shearith Israel’s Sisterhood, established in 1896.

Throughout the nineteenth century, almost all charity and social action work in New York was conducted on a denominational basis. Protestants, Catholics, and Jews each had their own separate institutions and agencies to meet the needs of their communities.

By the end of the nineteenth century, individuals from the different religious groups began working together. Maud Nathan was one of the first Jewish women in American to be involved on the highest levels in a social action cause that crossed denominational lines.

Josephine Shaw Lowell, a prominent personality in the New York social service world, invited Maud Nathan to become involved in the work of the Consumers’ League of New York, which was founded in 1891. Maud Nathan not only joined this group, but went on to serve as its President from 1897 to 1917. She also served as Vice-President of the National Consumers’ League that developed on the model of the New York Consumers’ League.

In her work for the Consumers’ League, she and her colleagues addressed the terrible working conditions of young women clerks in New York’s department stores and shops. The basic insight of the Consumers’ League was that the problem was caused not just by the callousness of employers but by the thoughtlessness of consumers. If shoppers would demand proper conditions for store workers, the employers would be forced to comply. The Consumers’ League printed a “white list” naming the stores that met at least the minimum standards required by the League. At first, only a few stores earned the right to be included on the list. It soon became clear, though, that consumers were becoming sympathetic to the cause. More and more shoppers were patronizing “white list” stores and many were refusing to shop in stores that exploited their workers.

Through persistent hard work and ongoing negotiations with employers, the Consumers’ League brought about a revolution in working conditions for the store clerks. The success was so monumental that other cities and states copied the New York model, which won adherents internationally as well. Maud Nathan described the history of the Consumers’ League in a book she wrote called The Story of an Epoch-Making Movement.

Through her work for the women’s suffrage movement and in the Consumers’ League, Maud Nathan left an imprint on American history. In eulogizing her at her funeral on December 15, 1946, Rabbi David de Sola Pool referred to “her strong spiritual insight.” She is noteworthy for having been able to translate her spiritual insight and idealism into practical action that helped her fellow human beings.

Maud Nathan was outspoken in her criticism of anti-Semitism and racial prejudice. She felt that group hatred and bigotry were increasing in New York during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. In her autobiography, Once Upon a Time and Today, she reminded her readers:


Prejudice produces humiliation which is not easy to bear. And the sad part is that the nature becomes warped and the spirit of kindliness and friendliness is changed into bitterness and resentment. To live in peace, there must be mutual confidence, trust, cooperation, no antagonism. How often, instead of mutual respect for differing spiritual values, there is suspicion, intolerance. Does not this intolerance find its final expression in the un-American principles of the Ku Klux Klan?


She saw herself as a victim of discrimination, both as a woman and as a Jew. Still, she took pride in the fact that he had “been able to make her protest count, because she persisted.” She devoted her life to advocating the American—and Jewish—ideals of freedom, mutual respect, and social justice.


Alice Davis Menken


A remarkable contemporary of Maud Nathan, also an active leader within the Shearith Israel community, was Alice Davis Menken (1870–1936). She, too, descended from early Shearith Israel families who had served in the American Revolution. Her husband, Mortimer Menken, was a successful New York attorney, and served as Parnas of Shearith Israel from 1922 to 1926. Alice Menken was President of Shearith Israel’s Sisterhood from 1900 to 1929.

Alice Menken’s interest in helping shape a better society went further [than the Sisterhood’s operation of settlement houses on the Lower East Side]. She was troubled by evidence of delinquency and vice among poor young Jewish immigrants. These young people often grew up in horrendous conditions, and it is no wonder that some of them fell into anti-social behavior. Alice Menken believed that the way to deal with such individuals was through genuine, kind assistance and not through punishment. The goal was to rehabilitate them, not to harden them. In 1907, she was a prime mover in founding the Jewish Board of Guardians, which created a system of volunteers to look after wayward young people. Volunteers were given responsibility for supervising Jewish youth who had been placed on court-ordered probation.

In 1908, she organized a group of women from the Shearith Israel Sisterhood to work with the probation department of the Women’s Night Court of New York City. The Sisterhood group took responsibility for delinquent women so that they would not have to be incarcerated. In 1911, she helped found the Jewish Big Sister Association, through which women would “adopt” young women who were at risk of leading anti-social lives. Through one-to-one relationships, the “big sisters” could help guide the “little sisters” to constructive and fulfilling lives.

Alice Menken set a personal example for service. In the period from 1919 to 1922, in cooperation with the probation department, 346 probationers were under her own supervision—for as long a period as required by each of them. The average age of these women was 20, and 197 of them were foreign-born. Alice Menken spent time getting to know the young women, and assessing their needs and wants. She sought to find ways of helping them to help themselves. Almost all of the women for whom she took responsibility went on to live better lives—returning home, finding jobs, establishing families of their own. In at least one case, Alice Menken took a probationer home to live in her own house, making her part of her own family for several years! The young woman went on to live a good life, and was ever appreciative of this incredible generosity of spirit.

In 1920, Governor Alfred E. Smith appointed Alice Menken to serve as a member of the Board of Managers of the Reformatory. In this capacity, she strove to improve prison conditions and to eliminate solitary confinement. She believed that prisoners needed an environment that offered them the possibility of rehabilitation.

In 1933, she published a book entitled On the Side of Mercy, in which she discussed her philosophy (and her actions) relating to problems in social readjustment. She wrote:


We must seek a balanced philosophy of life. We must live to make the world worth living in, with new ideals, less suffering, and more joy….And when the cry of distress is heard from those overtaken by moral disability, organizations and individuals whose creeds are different, but whose ideals are one, respond in full measure. In this way the new generation, maturing during these years of depression, will be cheered to action and taught something of human and spiritual values.



The Religious Vision of Rev. Dr. Henry Pereira Mendes


(This is an article by Rabbi Marc D. Angel that originally appeared in a book he edited, From Strength to Strength, Sepher-Hermon Press, New York, 1998, pp. 21–28.)


Dr. Mendes served as Minister of Congregation Shearith Israel from 1877 through 1920. He continued to be associated with the Congregation as Minister Emeritus until his death in 1937. During the course of these 60 years, Dr. Mendes established himself as a remarkable communal leader, scholar, and author.

Born in Birmingham, England, Henry Pereira Mendes grew up in a family well-known for its history of producing religious leaders. Indeed, his father Abraham was Minister of the Jewish congregation in Birmingham. H. P. Mendes received his early religious education and inspiration from his parents and as a young man served as Hazan and Minister of the Sephardic congregation in Manchester. While in New York, he studied and graduated from the medical school of New York University. In 1890, he was married to Rosalie Rebecca Piza.

Dr. Mendes was proud to be the religious leader of the oldest Jewish congregation in North America. From this base, he promoted numerous communal and social ideals and causes.

He was one of the leading Orthodox rabbis in the United States. Although he was Sephardic, he won the good will of the entire Orthodox community, including the Yiddish-speaking immigrants. He was a founder and the first president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (1898). He was also one of the founders of the Jewish Theological Seminary (1887), which he and his collaborators intended to be an institution that would produce English-speaking Orthodox rabbis.

While staunchly Orthodox, he worked with all Jews for the betterment of the community. He was among the founders of the New York Board of Rabbis and was one of the early presidents of the organization. In 1885, he helped organize a branch of the Alliance Israelite Universelle in New York. He also was instrumental in the founding of the YWHA in New York, as well as Montefiore Hospital and the Lexington School for the Deaf.

Dr. Mendes was proud of the fact that Theodor Herzl asked his cooperation in organizing the Zionist movement in the United States. Dr. Mendes was elected vice-president of the Federation of American Zionists and a member of the actions committee of the World Zionist Organization. He advocated “Bible Zionism” or “spiritual Zionism”—an idea of establishing a Jewish State founded upon the principles and ideals of the Jewish religious tradition.

A prolific author, Dr. Mendes wrote essays and editorials, children’s stories, textbooks, sermons, prayers, dramatic works, poetry, and commentaries. His writings were imbued with the love of the Bible.

Rabbi Bernard Drachman, a colleague of Dr. Mendes, described him as “an ideal representative of Orthodox Judaism.” He praised Mendes’ “absolute freedom…from anything approaching narrowness or sectarian bias within the Jewish community.”

Dr. Mendes served Shearith Israel with outstanding devotion. He was a champion of the synagogue’s traditions. At a time when reform and change were the popular catchwords, Dr. Mendes was an eloquent voice for tradition.

The religious vision of Dr. Mendes is reflected in the titles of his main books: Jewish History Ethically Presented (1895), The Jewish Religion Ethically Presented (1895), and Jewish Life Ethically Presented (1917). In 1934, he prepared a little volume of prayers and meditations for home use “to promote and facilitate the habit of prayer.”

Dr. Mendes’ religious outlook was deeply steeped in the Hebrew Bible. The verses of Scripture served as the basis of an ethical and compassionate way of life. In The Jewish Religion Ethically Presented, he demonstrated his method of thought. He began each section with a citation from the Bible, and then provided the traditional lessons that were derived from the text. He then added his own elaboration of moral lessons that could be rooted in the biblical text. And then he offered a series of biblical quotations to close each section.

For example, in dealing with the third of the Ten Commandments (Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name in vain), Dr. Mendes provided the traditional explanations of this commandment. It is forbidden to use God’s name in a disrespectful way, for a false oath, or for any wrong purpose. Likewise, this commandment is violated whenever one says prayers without concentration and reverent devotion. Dr. Mendes added the ethical component: “We take His name in vain, or to no purpose, if we speak of God being good, just, merciful, etc., without trying ourselves to be good, just, merciful, etc.” We must be loving, merciful and forgiving, in emulation of God’s ways.

Dr. Mendes then offered a number of extensions to this commandment:


We are children of God. We are called by His name. When we do wrong, we disgrace or profane His name. Hence a disgraceful act is called Chilul Hashem, a profanation of the Name. And just as all the members of a family feel any disgrace that any one of them incurs, so when any Hebrew does wrong, the disgrace is felt by all Jews. We are known as the people of God. We assume His name in vain unless we obey His Laws….We take or assume His name in vain when we call ourselves by His name and say we are His children or His people, while for our convenience or ease we neglect religious duties which He has commanded us. (The Jewish Religion Ethically Presented, revised edition, 1912, pp. 59–60)


In elaborating on the commandment to honor one’s parents, Dr. Mendes stated:


To honor parents, ministers of religion, the aged, the learned, our teachers and authorities is a sign of the highest type of true manliness and of true womanliness. Respect for parents is essential to the welfare of society…..Anarchy or the absence of respect for authority, always brings ruin. Respect for all the authorities is insisted upon in the Bible. (p. 64)


In discussing the commandment prohibiting murder, Dr. Mendes noted that “we may not kill a man’s good name or reputation, nor attack his honor. We do so when we act as a tale-bearer or slanderer.” He goes on to say that “we may not kill a man’s business….Respect for human life carries with it respect for anyone’s livelihood. We may not make it hard for others to live by reason of our own greed” (pp. 65–66).

Dr. Mendes constantly emphasized the need for religion to be a steady and constant force in one’s life. True religion is expressed not merely in ceremonials, but in our conduct in all aspects of our daily life. In his Jewish Daily Life Ethically Presented (1917), he taught that


our religion thus requires threefold work from us: we must work for our own happiness, we must work for the happiness of the world we live in, and we must work for the glory of God. Our dietary laws mean healthy bodies and healthy minds to be able to do this threefold work. (p. 57)


He argued that the laws of kashruth, by governing everything we eat, add a spiritual and ethical dimension to this basic human need.

Dr. Mendes wrote.


Our daily work, no matter how important or how menial, if we perform it conscientiously, becomes equivalent to an act of worship. It therefore means setting God before us as the One we desire to please by the faithful discharge of our daily duties. This kind of recognition of good faith, honesty and honor means religion. Conscientiousness is religion. We must therefore do our work conscientiously. We should derive spiritual happiness out of labor by recognizing that God consecrates labor. (p. 59)

Dr. Mendes often expressed his philosophy in witty epigrams. A number of these were collected by Dr. David de Sola Pool in his biography of Dr. Mendes. The following are some examples of Dr. Mendes’ wit and wisdom.


  • In too many homes religion is a farce, not a force.
  • I plead, let every man and woman privately commune with God to place his or her heart-needs before Him.
  • I plead for Sabbath observance.
  • The three greats R’s: Reverence, Righteousness, and Responsibility.
  • Democracy is the ideal form of government, but it needs ideal citizens.
  • Music helps us find God.
  • Let us have less fault-finding and more fault-mending.
  • Speak to the young; but first to the old.
  • To be accorded all of little Palestine is not too great a reward for having given the world the Bible.
  • Peace for the world at last and the realization of reverence for God by all men. These are the essentials for human happiness. Zionism stands for them.


Dr. Mendes was an avid Zionist; the focus of his Zionism was the religious and spiritual revival of the Jewish people, so that a Jewish state would become a spiritual inspiration to the entire world. He felt that the goals of Zionism could not be accomplished unless the Jews themselves were faithful to their religious traditions. Moreover, he believed it was necessary to win the support and respect of the non-Jewish world. “That respect we can have only if we respect ourselves by respecting our religion. Here is true work for Zionists: to keep Hebrews true to Jewish life, Jewish law, Jewish sentiment” (letter of Dr. Mendes to Haham Gaster, July 21, 1903, published in Tradition, Fall 1995, p. 70).

In spite of his tireless efforts and his eloquent expositions, Dr. Mendes realized that many Jews were turning away from the Jewish religious traditions. Compromises in religious observance were being made for reasons of convenience or ideology. The level of serious Jewish learning was declining. He struggled with singular devotion to raise the Jewish people to a higher level of knowledge and observance, a deep-felt spirituality, a God-inspired ethical worldview.

In 1911, he delivered a sermon at Shearith Israel, after he had recovered from a serious illness. He reminisced about past challenges that he and the Congregation had faced together.


In looking over the years that have sped, there are times when I think that I have failed to bring religion’s holy teachings into the hearts of all this Congregation, and therefore I have failed to do His will….I do know that I have failed to bring into the lives of all the members of the Congregation that spirituality which alone can make us all sons and daughters of God in the highest sense, that spirituality of life which makes us willing, eager, anxious to do His will….It is true, and I thank God for it, that many of you are working hard to bring religion into actual life. You strive to have your children as loyal as you are, and as your parents before you were; you strive to bring sunshine into the lives of others; your communal and congregational activities are splendid….But I repeat, I confess to failure in influencing the lives of those of this Congregation who rarely or never set foot in this holy building; who hold aloof from congregational and communal work; in whose homes Sabbath is forgotten, from whose homes all Jewish characteristics are banished; who forget that constant absence from Sabbath worship, gradually, insidiously, but invariably disintegrates the Jewishness of the home and of all its inmates, and invariably precedes that desertion from our religion which we understand by the expression “he or she has married out.”… Let us both try to prove our gratitude to God by doing His will. Then, come sorrow, come trial, come defeat, come death itself, the God who alone knows the human heart, who alone can read the inmost soul, shall judge whether you and I have labored in vain, whether you and I have spent our strength for naught, and in vain—for surely our judgement shall be with the Lord and our work shall be before our God.


In his 60 years of association with Shearith Israel, Dr. Mendes faced many challenges and had many accomplishments. He was proud, yet modest; forceful, yet gentle; spiritual, yet practical. His memory has continued to influence and inspire the generations which have followed.




Angel, Marc, “Mendes, Henry Pereira,” in Jewish-American History and Culture: An Encyclopedia, edited by J. Fischel and S. Pinsker, New York and London, 1992, pp. 386–387.


Markovitz, Eugene, “Henry Pereira Mendes: Architect of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America,” American Jewish Historical Quarterly Vol. 55 (1965), pp. 364–384.  See also the doctoral dissertation of Eugene Markovitz, H. P. Mendes: Builder of Traditional Judaism in America, Yeshiva University, 1961.


Pool, David and Tamar, An Old Faith in the New World, New York, 1955, pp. 192–201.


Pool, David de Sola, H. P. Mendes: A Biography, New York, 1938.









Natural Childbirth; Drunkenness; Science: Rabbi Marc Angel Replies to Questions from the Jewish Press


Is having a natural birth advisable, inadvisable, or a value-free decision?

Natural childbirth generally refers to going through labor and delivery without aid of medications and pain relievers such as epidurals. Each woman needs to decide what would be best for herself. Prime consideration must be for her own health and the healthy delivery of her baby. For some women, natural childbirth is a wonderful experience, especially if they had taken suitable classes during pregnancy. Others, though, will prefer to benefit from the advances in medicine that diminish pain.

Natural childbirth classes generally want the father, as well as the mother, to prepare for the upcoming birth. It is advised that the husband be with his wife throughout the labor and delivery.

Although some have raised halakhic objections to a husband’s presence, Rabbi Haim David Halevy, late Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, offered halakhic justification (Asei Lekha Rav 4:58). Modern research has found that the husband's presence can indeed be helpful to his wife during delivery. Although our mothers and grandmothers were perfectly able to have children without their husbands being present, it is possible that contemporary women may feel the absolute need for their husbands to be present during delivery. Without their husbands there, the women of today may feel that they will suffer greater pain and will be in greater danger. Therefore, for women who feel this way, Rabbi Halevy believes that the husbands should be present in the delivery room since this is a matter bordering on pikuah nefesh, saving another person's life.


Is it ever appropriate to get drunk?


The Talmud (Megillah 7b) quotes Rava’s opinion that one must become drunk on Purim so as to be unable to tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai.” But the same passage goes on to report that Rabba and Rav Zeira became so drunk on Purim that Rabba slaughtered Rav Zeira with a knife. The latter was revived only by a miracle. When Rabba invited Rav Zeira to a Purim celebration the following year, Rav Zeira wisely declined.


Some people read this passage but stop right after Rava’s opinion that one must become drunk on Purim. Others correctly read the entire passage and recognize that the anecdote is a blatant refutation of Rava. The Talmud’s lesson is: don’t get drunk; terrible things can happen if you become intoxicated.

Drunkenness is a shameful state. Maimonides (Hilkhot De’ot 5:3) states: “One who becomes intoxicated is a sinner and is despicable, and loses his wisdom. If he [a wise person] becomes drunk in the presence of common folk, he has thereby desecrated the Name.” In his section on the Laws of Holiday Rest (6:20), Maimonides rules: “When one eats, drinks and celebrates on a festival, he should not allow himself to become overly drawn to drinking wine, amusement and silliness…for drunkenness and excessive amusement and silliness are not rejoicing; they are frivolity and foolishness.”

Not only does drunkenness impair one’s judgment, it demeans a person in the eyes of others and in the eyes of God.


Should a frum Jew believe the sun goes around Earth if the Rambam says it does?


In his “Letter on Astrology,” Rambam taught a vital lesson:  “A person should never cast reason behind, for the eyes are set in front—not in back.” He insisted on the pursuit of truth. As a philosopher and scientist himself, Rambam brilliantly applied the best knowledge of his time to the understanding of Torah.


Our knowledge today has been dramatically enhanced by centuries of scientific advances.  We now know that the earth orbits the sun, as do the other planets. We now know that the earth is a tiny planet in a vast galaxy, which itself is only one of many galaxies in the universe. There is no credible controversy over these facts. If Rambam were alive today, he would not cast his reason behind; he would embrace new knowledge with the alacrity of a brilliant mind.


I think Rambam would be deeply embarrassed by those who posit that the sun goes around the earth based on Rambam’s own writings. Such obscurantists lock themselves into medieval scientific thought rather than opening their minds to the ongoing advances in science. One of the great dangers for religion—and for human progress in general—is for people to cling to discredited theories and outdated knowledge. Those who cast reason behind, thereby cast truth behind. And Truth is the seal of the Almighty.









Remembering Rabbi Dr. Sabato Morais

Rabbi Dr. Sabato Morais (April 13, 1823-November 11, 1897) was described by a New York Yiddish newspaper as “without doubt…the greatest of all Orthodox rabbis in the United States.” This encomium was written several years after the death of Morais, when a full picture of his life and accomplishments could be written with historical perspective.

Few today remember this remarkable religious leader; even fewer see him as a model of enlightened Orthodox Judaism whose example might be followed by modern day Jews. Yet, Sabato Morais was a personality who deserves our attention…and our profound respect.

Born in Livorno, of Portuguese-Jewish background, he was raised in the Sephardic traditions of his community. As a young rabbi, he became the Director of the Orphan’s School of the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation of London where he served for five years. In 1851, he began service as rabbi of Congregation Mikveh Israel, the historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of Philadelphia. He remained with Mikveh Israel for nearly five decades, until his death toward the end of 1897.

Rabbi Dr. Alan Corre, who served as rabbi of Mikveh Israel from 1955 to 1963, wrote an appreciation of his early predecessor. He noted that “in everything he [Morais] writes and does, he comes across as a warm, loving, eminently humane individual, with self-respect, yet remarkably free of egotism for a man in public life who was the recipient of much honor, including an honorary degree from the University of Pennsylvania.” Rabbi Morais sought “to live as a Jew without qualifiers, one who revered and loved the Jewish tradition and desired greatly to perpetuate it.”

Dr. Corre has pointed out that Rabbi Morais is somewhat of an enigma to many, in the sense that he cannot be easily classified according to the ideologies and styles of the major branches of American Jewish life today. “Orthodox as he was in practice, he does not fulfill the role model of the Talmudic sage, and has about him a somewhat assimilated air at which the strictly Orthodox might well look askance. For the Conservative, he is insufficiently innovative, to unwilling to take religious risks. And of Reform, he was a life-long opponent.”

Rabbi Morais was a fine representative of the Western Sephardic rabbinic tradition of his time. Western Sephardim valued general culture, refinement, orderliness, social responsibility. They fostered a Judaism that was loyal to traditional ritual, while at the same time being worldly and intellectually open. Personal piety was to be humble, not ostentatious.

Rabbi Morais wrote: “True worship resides in the heart, and truly it is by purifying our hearts that we best worship God; still, the ordinances which we are enjoined to perform aim at this object: to sanctify our immortal soul, to make it worthy of its sublime origin.”

He laid great stress on ethical behavior, on compassion, on concern for others. He worked not only on behalf of the Jewish community, but showed concern for society as a whole. He was a vocal opponent of slavery and an avid admirer of President Abraham Lincoln. He supported the cause of American Indians; he spoke against the Chinese Exclusion Acts during the 1880s. He cried out against the persecution of Armenians in 1895. Working together with Jewish and non-Jewish clergy, he fostered an ecumenical outlook that called for all people to respect each other and to work for shared goals to improve the quality of life for everyone. In all of his work, Rabbi Morais did not seek glory or public recognition. He was compassionate, graceful and idealistic. Perhaps it was his self-effacing style that won him so much admiration and respect from so many. They saw him as an authentic religious personality, not as one who was serving his own ego.

Arthur Kiron, in a fascinating article that appeared in “American Jewish History,” September 1996, observed that “those who knew and loved Morais repeatedly referred to him in their memorial tributes in idealized terms, as a religious role model, a prophet like Jeremiah, a man of constancy, duty, absolute sincerity, piety and humility.”

One of Morais’s memorializers described him as follows: “For the critical eye of man [Morais] has left behind no visible monuments of great achievements, but to the eye of God he has reared a monument far greater than any of those famed by man. That greatness was his goodness, which in point of intrinsic merit will compare with the greatest wonders of genius. Were it possible for man to measure the amount of good he dispensed among the sorrowing and afflicted…the historian would not hesitate to enroll his name among the world’s truest and noblest immortals….To do good was the first duty of his creed, to do it in silence always, and in secrecy wherever possible, was his second.”

Rabbi Morais and his New York colleague Rabbi Henry Pereira Mendes were co-founders of the Jewish Theological Seminary. They had hoped that this institution would train American-born Orthodox rabbis to lead congregations throughout America. These two rabbis of the Spanish and Portuguese Congregations of Philadelphia and New York worked closely on other communal projects, always in a spirit of devotion to God and community. They both sought to promote a Judaism loyal to tradition, committed to social justice, marked by dignity and gravitas.

Orthodoxy of today is often characterized by increasing narrowness, obscurantism, authoritarianism, and xenophobia. Orthodox rabbis of the ilk of Rabbi Morais are a vanishing breed. The classic Western Sephardic religious worldview is on the verge of extinction. What a phenomenal loss this is for Judaism and the Jewish People!

Yet, as we remember the life of Rabbi Sabato Morais, we know that the memory of the righteous is a blessing. It continues to influence and inspire. The stature and vision of Rabbi Morais will emerge to guide new generations in an Orthodox Judaism that is faithful to tradition, cultured, refined, genuinely pious, humane, and humble. “Happy the man who has found wisdom, the man who has obtained understanding.”

Cologne for Men? Husband/Wife Tensions? Elongated Prayers? Panhandlers?--Rabbi Marc Angel Replies to the Jewish Press

Is it appropriate for a man to wear cologne?


The Talmud (Berakhot 43b) and Rambam (Hilkhot De’ot 5:9) indicate the impropriety of Torah sages “going abroad while scented.” Perhaps such behavior was deemed to be too hedonistic or effeminate; perhaps it could have led people to suspect inappropriate behavior.

Attitudes have changed dramatically over the centuries. In our times, it is fairly common for men to use after shave lotion or cologne, and few—if any—would deem this to be hedonistic, effeminate or suggestive of immoral conduct. An industry study of several years ago found that 63% of American men aged 18-64 wear fragrances at least occasionally, with 23% indicating they use it all the time. In many cases, the scents are used as antiperspirants. Or they simply make the man feel more cheerful or more presentable.

Using colognes/scents is a personal decision which affects each man and those with whom he has regular contact at home or work. It is appropriate to let each man decide what is best for himself and his immediate family and friends.


Is it ever appropriate for a husband to put his foot down with his wife or a wife with her husband?  (Or is compromise the answer no matter what the issue is?)


Husbands and wives must always strive to deal with each other with love, respect, patience…and a good sense of humor. They must be able to communicate their feelings and their needs, and must be sure that their spouse genuinely listens and understands. With these ingredients, couples will be able to negotiate almost every area of conflict. Almost…but not all.


Sometimes there are deep differences that cannot simply be ignored or laughed away. But when such differences arise, authoritarian attitudes seldom result in satisfactory conclusions. You don’t “put your foot down” if you treat your spouse as an equal partner in marriage. On the other hand, compromises are not always workable or appropriate.


If a couple cannot reach a satisfactory resolution to their differences, they should consult their rabbi or a marriage counselor. It sometimes is helpful to have a trusted professional help the couple work through the issues and come to a mutually acceptable way forward.


The goal is not to have either spouse say: “I won, you lost.” The goal is for both to be able to say: “We won.”



  Should a person daven a long Shemoneh Esrei if others around him might consider him arrogant (or holier than thou) as a result?


A person should pray humbly and sincerely. Proper prayer puts one into relationship with the Almighty; it is a sacred time, a quiet and transformative time.

When one prays, one focuses on being in the presence of Hashem.

True religiosity is marked by personal, private devotion. Yuhara—pretentiousness—is a violation of the essence of religious experience. Tradition speaks of 36 hidden righteous people upon whom the world depends. They live piously and inconspicuously. They do not seek—or want—to flaunt their piety.

When one prays Shemoneh Esrei (or any other parts of the service) one should do so in a way that combines these two principles: 1) sincere personal outpouring of heart; 2) inconspicuous devotion.

One should pray Shemoneh Esrei as long as it takes for him or her to do so properly. No one should stand in judgment of how much time another person takes for his or her prayer.

If a person is the rabbi or shaliah tsibbur of the congregation, he should not elongate his prayer so as not to cause excessive delay to the worshipers. But a private individual may take as much time as needed, as long as he/she does not disturb other congregants.

If a person is indeed trying to appear “holier than thou” let Hashem be the judge. We are better off concentrating on our own prayers and not worrying about how long it takes for our neighbor to complete the Shemoneh Esrei.


Should you give money to a panhandler on the street (or a subways car) if you have no idea if the person really needs it or not (e.g., he may take the money to buy drugs)?



The mitzvah of giving charity has two goals. One is to provide assistance to the recipient. The other is to develop a charitable personality in the donor. Ideally, both goals are accomplished when one generously gives to a genuinely needy person.


When one is asked for funds from an unknown individual, a charitable person will tend to donate without asking questions about how the recipient will use the charity.


When one is asked for funds from someone of dubious character, even a charitable person might choose not to donate. Why give one’s hard earned money to someone who may be a con artist, or a drunk, or a drug addict? The dilemma is exacerbated when there are so many requests from beggars on the streets and subways. It is natural to become mistrustful and to avoid giving alms to such individuals.


We should give charity when we feel it will genuinely help the recipients; and when we feel that our donation will help us in our own moral development. When in doubt, it’s best to err on the side of being too charitable.