Rabbi Norman Lamm and Mixed Pews

Though the mechitzah question has essentially been settled within Orthodox Judaism for decades, the debate was alive and well during the middle portion of the 20th century. In many communities across the country, people fought long, hard battles (in the courtroom and beyond) to remove the mechitzah from the synagogue, while others tried with equal vigor to keep the separation in place. This portion of American Jewish history has resulted in at least one book (The Sanctity of the Synagogue), and, unsurprisingly, other literary discussion.


R. Dr. Norman Lamm

In the second issue of Tradition, R. Norman Lamm tackled the subject, and a comment of his bears repeating. One aspect of the substantial rhetoric in favor of fixed pews was less a rational argument than a slogan: “the family that prays together.” In addition to noting that fostering family togetherness — while important — cannot be foisted entirely upon the synagogue, R. Lamm also notes:




If it were true that “families that pray together stay together,” and that, conversely, families that pray in a shul with a mechitzah do not stay together, th’en one would expect the Orthodox Jewish home to be the most broken home in all of society, for Orthodox Jews have maintained separate pews throughout history. And yet it is precisely in Orthodox Jewish society that the home is the most stable, most firm, most secure.



R. Yerucham Gorelick and Talmud vs. Hashkafa

I stumbled across something rather interesting from a few years back. As reported by Marc Shapiro, Rav Yerucham Gorelick’s* son,  R. Mordechai Leib Gorelick, apparently denies that his father taught gemara at Yeshiva University. As quoted here, apparently the younger R. Gorelick wrote “מעולם לא לימד שם גמרא כלל” – he never taught Talmud there whatsoever. Instead, says R. Mordechai Leib, his father taught exclusively “hashkafa” at YU.

Rav Yerucham Gorelick in the 1960 Masmid.

Rav Yerucham Gorelick in the 1960 Masmid.

It is well known to many (though probably not to the readership of the charedi publication in which his letter was published) that this is false. Despite his son’s denial, R. Gorelick did teach gemara at YU.

Why the falsehood, though?

As Shapiro notes, it is presumably because “the son is embarrassed that his father taught Talmud at YU.” What I’m not clear on is why teaching hashkafa at an inappropriate institution is less of a crime than teaching gemara there.

My kneejerk reaction was that R. Gorelick’s son’s claim was further tarnishing his father’s reputation. While Talmud study is certainly a religious act, it is also largely an intellectual pursuit. On the other hand, hashkafa – essentially religious philosophy or thought – is (at least compared with Talmudic study) not considered an intellectual field of study. For a group which considers YU out of bounds, one would think that the teachers of religious philosophy wold be considered more villainous than the teachers of Talmud.

The younger R. Gorelick clearly disagreed with me and felt that he could save his father’s reputation by pretending he never taught gemara at YU.

R. Yerucham Gorelick in YU - Note the English "Jerome" and the specification that he was a member of the Talmud department.

R. Yerucham Gorelick in YU – Note the English “Jerome” and the specification that he was a member of the Talmud department.

I’d rather not talk about R. Gorelick (either one), in particular, but to simply discuss the greater discomfiture at teaching Talmud than hashkafa at an illicit institution. I have a few thoughts:

  1. People might consider teaching Talmud to be a full-time job and teaching hashkafa to be part-time. 
  2. (Nobody thinks that Lubavitch shluchim endorse every idea of all the people with who they interact. They are doing kiruv. Were they teaching a daily gemara shiur, you might be more inclined to think that they associated with their students.) Teaching hashkafa could be considered similar to kiruv.
  3. As Shapiro mentions, R. Mordechai Leib Gorelick has some interesting views, including his feelings that “Talmud study is not for the masses, but only for the elite.” I suppose for someone who possesses both that view of Talmud study and a negative attitude to YU, teaching gemara at YU is a bad thing and teaching hashkafa at the same institution would be more tolerable.

I don’t know which side of the argument is stronger. As I said, my initial reaction was that it is more of a crime to teach hashkafa at an inappropriate institution, but I’m not so sure anymore.

*Interesting facts about R. Gorelick: He was born in 1911 in Slutsk. Two famous Jews who share this birth year with him were Jack Ruby and R. Gorelick’s longtime boss, YU President Samuel Belkin. Belkin was born in Svislach, about a two day, non-stop walk from Slutsk.

The Slifkin Ban and the Ban on Chassidus

Rabbi Slifkin

I happened to be reading some of the – always interesting – documents about the ban on R. Natan Slifkin’s books (available here) recently and had an interesting thought. R. Slifkin recounts in significant detail how he was given warning about the ban on his books but when he tried to meet with the ban’s signatories they all refused to grant him an audience. (I had likely read this before, but I guess I had forgotten it.)

Now, this seems like a strong reaction. Many would find it appropriate to personally meet with an author prior to banning his book, but at the very least one would think that if the author desired an audience with the proponents of his ban, he would receive it.

Within a day, however, I thought about a somewhat similar occurrence from over 200 years ago. Not being all that familiar with the story, I did a google search. This yielded a few interesting results. As the Daas Torah blog wrote in 2008, Wikipedia states the following:

According to Chabad tradition, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Horodoker were sent to the Vilna Gaon by the Maggid of Mezeritch and the Gaon refused to meet with them.

Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer of Vilna

As might be expected for a story which is both chassidic and over 200 years old, there are various versions and interpretations to the story. (The first telling of the story that I recall didn’t mention the Maggid of Mezeritch. Also, at least one version – perhaps the predominant one – has the Vilna Gaon not just refusing an audience with the Baal HaTanya but fleeing town. This is mentioned in one of the comments to that post.)

But whatever the specifics, this story seems to provide a parallel to that of R. Slifkin. For one thing, they are both stories of the establishment banning the upstart without giving the upstart a chance to argue his case. (The Vilna Gaon – besides being the Vilna Gaon – had 25 years on the Baal HaTanya.) Additionally, they are both bans which are clearly ignored. Hasidism flourished unrestrained by the Gaon’s ban, and R. Slifkin has many, many supporters in the Orthodox world.

I feel quite confident that the ban’s signatories did not harbor the same feelings toward Chasidim as did the Vilna Gaon. (For example, one of them served on the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah alongside Chasidic rabbis.) I’m not sure what to make of this, though.

Can we assume that those who signed the ban simply put little significance in refusing to meet with somebody, i.e. that they thought it possible that the anti-Slifkin and anti-Chasidic attitudes were questionable but STILL ban-worthy? Did they feel that they were more qualified as judges of R. Slifkin than the Gaon was as a judge of Hasidism?

I don’t know that we can draw any conclusions from here, I just found the similarities between the two stories interesting.

The second thing I found out was that somebody (almost certainly a Chasid) removed the paragraph quoted above from the Vilna Gaon’s Wikipedia article. It’s still in the archive history but is not part of the current article on the Vilna Gaon.

Chanukah message from 1913 Pittsburgh

Chanukah Menorah

This Chanukah message appeared in the Jewish Criterion of Pittsburgh, PA on December 19, 1913. (Parenthetically, the Federal Reserve System was created with the signing of the Federal Reserve Act within a week of the publishing of this holiday message.)


To our readers and friends we extend sincerest wishes for a happy and joyful Hanukkah week. May the memories of brave names, called again before us, fill our souls with renewed enthusiasm for the faith of our fathers. The kindling of the lights should awaken within every Jewish heart a deeper and more abiding love for Israel and its ideals.

Next Wednesday, the day before Christmas, the happy week will be ushered in. When the first candle will be kindled on Tuesday evening, we trust that our Jewish people will concentrate their thoughts on Mattathias and his valiant sons, without waiting for the holiday of their neigh­bors to commence celebrating. We never could see why the beautiful symbolism of the candles, commemorating the wonderful bravery of the Maccabees, was less meaningful to Jews than the signs and ceremonies of the Christmas festival. The one event is grounded in history, the other is not. The one narrates the story of unequalled heroism for a world ideal, the other records an uncertain date, at best, and which is chiefly remembered by Jews as being the time for yearly persecutions and outrages. Mindful of this, let us concentrate our thoughts on the joys within our own history, without borrowing those of our neighbors.

One of the saddest experiences of our life was in passing along East Broadway in New York, about ten years ago on Christmas Day. Window after window was decorated, often with a Christmas tree. Pre­sumably, every household had left Russia to escape persection [sic], yet how quickly had all their sorrows been forgotten. In the old country, Christ­mas Eve was a night of dread and apprehension, and in the new land it became an occasion to outdo their neighbors in celebrating. The Jew has no reason to exchange his Hanukkah gladness and candles for his neighbor’s mirth and tree. This joyful week will soon be upon us, and may its message of loyalty to Judaism enter our souls, making us better and more zealous children of Israel.

It’s a nice basic message – “cherish your own holiday.” I’d like to think that the number of Jews celebrating Christmas over Chanukah is at least somewhat lower now than it was in 1913, giving the flourishing of American Judaism and Jewish pride over the last 99 years. (If nothing else, at least the holidays don’t overlap this year.)

Lessons from the Weberman Trial

The Weberman trial has ended. The jury began its deliberations on Friday and after a weekend break ruled guilty on all counts. I think there are some things that we can learn from this trial.

The trial was, of course, a trial for Nechemya Weberman but there have been those who’ve opined that, in reality, the entire Satmar community was on trial. There’s some truth to that statement; the difference between the two trials is that the community – unlike Weberman – is not being tried by a jury.

Various mainstream news outlets have covered the trial and many of them have also spoken about the community. The court of public opinion is incredibly powerful. The Satmar community seems to be claiming that outsiders are out to get them. While this may be true in some cases, there are certainly many spectators who feel legitimate pain when they hear about – for example – children who are molested and then considered outcasts when they inform on the perpetrators. Other seemingly unsavory aspects of the community, like the va’ad hatznius, have also received negative press.

There is only so much power that individual communities have. Hundreds of years ago, when the governing powers desired to exclude Jews from society’s mainstream, they had little choice but to live in ghettos. With the advent of a more liberal society in the 18th century, there was debate within Jewry about whether leaving the ghetto was a desideratum. Today’s society – at least in America – does not merely allow a certain amount of Jewish-societal integration, it requires it. Telling the DA and the police not to do their jobs – which seemingly is what the ghettoized Chassidic communities are doing – is both politically unpopular and legitimately hard to envision as a long-term plan in today’s world.

Simply put, I think this trial demonstrates well the impossibility of a hasidic ghetto in the America of today.

R. Avi Weiss on Women Rabbis


Rabbi Avi Weiss

“I think the call for women rabbis is unhelpful, because there are roles that rabbis play that women, by Jewish law, are prohibited from doing. That’s very clear. In the same breath, there are many other roles that women can perform.” – R. Avi Weiss (source)

I came across this 1998 quote in a google search for something entirely unrelated. But I  think it’s very interesting, to say the least.

Vayeitzei, R. Shimon Shkop, and Orthodox Handshakes

Rabbi Shimon Shkop Photo

Rabbi Shimon Shkop

The pasuk in this week’s parsha says that Yaakov kissed Rachel. An old post (2008) on the Hirhurim blog references a lecture of R. Hershel Schachter wherein R. Schachter discusses how Yaakov’s actions could have been permissible. He quotes R. Yeruchem Gorelick who said, essentially, that the kiss was not derech chiba and was therefore permissible.

Interestingly, R. Schachter contrasts Yaakov’s encounter with Lavan with the his aforementioned meeting with Rachel. While it states that Yaakov hugged and kissed Lavan, it only states that he kissed Rachel. “Maybe he kissed her on the hand, maybe he kissed her on the cheek…” which are less likely to be derech chiba than a full-body embrace.

The blog post then goes on to relate comments of R. Schachter on related issues. However, it leaves out what I thought was, perhaps, R. Schachter’s most interesting anecdote. Though this anecdote doesn’t technically relate to Yaakov (as I think there’s a difference between different kinds of physical contact), the story sheds light on the attitudes of certain rabbis toward shaking hands with members of the opposite gender.

R. Shimon Shkop had an orphaned granddaughter (who lost both her parents) who was a non-observant Communist and lived in his house for some time. On one Shabbos, R. Shimon came home from the yeshiva with some students and his granddaughter’s Communist friend was there. When he walked in, the girl (the friend) put out her hand and said “Shabbat Shalom. R. Shkop shook her hand and said “Shabbat Shalom.”

Portrait of Fayge Ilanit

MK Fayge Ilanit

When the girlfriend left, R. Shkop’s granddaughter apologized for the actions of her friend. R. Shkop told his granddaughter “Your girlfriend didn’t realize how improper it is to shake the hand of a man other than her husband, but I did realize how improper it is to hurt someone’s feelings.”

R. Schachter explains:

“It clearly was not derech chiba, so strictly speaking it’s muttar. We have a middas chassidus not to do it, but if the middas chassidus will not be appreciated by the other people, we revert back to the ikkar hadin.”

I found this anecdote to be of great interest, and I think that it illuminates how one great Jewish scholar understood the inter-gender handshake in Jewish law.

*         *         *

As an aside, I should point out a few things about the anecdote for the sake of accuracy and completion. First, I believe that the granddaughter was Fayge Ilanit. If my assumption and Wikipedia are correct, she was not forced into R. Shkop’s house by losing both her parents, having only lost her mother. But when her father remarried, she moved into her grandfather’s home.

The part about her Communism is likely correct. Ilanit was apparently quite active politically and was actually a member of Mapam, an extreme left-wing party, in the first Knesset.

Was Rav Hirsch Modern Orthodox?

RSRH – Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

The question of whether Rav Hirsch was Modern Orthodox has been bandied about by many people. I think this is a very intriguing question, and I have various thoughts worthy of mention that can, perhaps, combine to answer the question.

What I really feel about this question, however, is that it’s generally mis-stated. Rav Hirsch was college-educated, embraced modernity, preached in the vernacular and wore clerical robes. I believe that it was clear to (nearly) all of his acquaintances that he was Modern Orthodox. It seems to me that the question people are really grappling with is whether today’s Modern Orthodoxy can claim Rav Hirsch as a founding figure.

That’s not a simple question to answer, but I think that framing the question more accurately is the first step toward answering it.

(This is not relevant to the question of R. Hirsch’s location on the Orthodox spectrum,  but I want to point out that the claim on the 19th century “Rebbe card” that he was “Dr.” Samson Raphael Hirsch is inaccurate. He never graduated university, and certainly didn’t get a doctorate. Also, for whatever it’s worth, R. Hirsch assumed the Frankfurt rabbinate in 1851 and lived there for the rest of his life. He looks rather young here, so I’m assuming that this depiction of him is from some time in the 1850s.)