Monthly Archives: April 2015

Jonathan Boyarin on Menashe Unger’s Tales of the Kotzker Rebbe

Many years ago long before I visited Poland, I read a wonderful volume From a Ruined Garden: The Memorial Books of Polish Jewry by Jack Kugelmass & Jonathan Boyarin (1983) consisting of translated selections from the Yizkor books of destroyed Polish Jewish communities chosen with an eye to presenting ethnographic details. The book gave one a vivid sense of daily life, holiday observance, and the local village presented in the words of those who came from those towns. In addiiton, the editors were acutely aware of the role of memory and representation in these accounts, providing the novel approach of studying Judaism from a contemporary ethnographic and cultural anthropology perspective. One of the editors Jonathan Boyarin has spent his productive academic career producing a shelf of books at that intersection of ethnography and Yiddishkeit.

Boyarin’s most recent work is a translation of Menashe Unger’s A Fire Burns in Kotsk: A Tale of Hasidism in the Kingdom of Poland (Wayne State Press, 2015). I have a long time academic interest in Polish Hasidism and would have naturally gravitated to the book, but we met recently at a conference on Ethnography, Reading and Judaism, where Boyarin was praised as a pioneer of asking the type of questions that the conference sought to address in his 1993 book The Ethnography of Reading.(At the conference, I was the lone non-ethnographer by training).


In earlier works, Boyarin addressed questions of Jewish otherness through comparisons with how European Christians dealt with Native American peoples especially in his work The Unconverted Self: Jews, Indians, and the Identity of Christian Europe and recently he has been turning his sights locally including a study of the interview process of hiring a rabbi for his own Stanton Street Synagogue in his Mornings at the Stanton Street Shul: A Summer on the Lower East Side, where he reflects on questions of continuity and the change from the older European born congregants to the new Modern Orthodox direction. (I am surprised that those who read everything on the Modern Orthodox cultural wars have not taken notice of this book with its transcriptions of rabbinic interviews by three YU and one YCT candidates.) Boyarin is now working on a volume based on his participant/observer study in a local yeshiva. But I must note, that his approach is not theological, sociological, or based insider Orthodox language. Rather his perspective is as someone looking to capture ethnographic details of identity, memory, hierarchy, and change.

Boyarin’s most recent work A Fire Burns in Kotsk: A Tale of Hasidism in the Kingdom of Poland translates the 1949 Yiddish telling of Kotzker stories in novella form by the non-observant socialist Menashe Unger.

To turn to the subject of the book, Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk, better known as the Kotzker Rebbe (1787–1859) was a leading Hasidic rabbi and leader. Even though the Kotzker died in 1859, the early twentieth century saw his reputation ascend through many works that painted him as an epigramic master, of sharp wit, and suffering fools poorly. Unto his name were appended stories from diverse sources including R. Israel Salanter stories, sufi tales, and tales from 1001 Nights including the dream of a bridge tale. The major collections of his sayings appeared in 1929 and 1938. Through this process the Kotzker was recast as the individualist, truth-seeker, disestablishmentarian, and in later years proto-existentialist.

Who wrote these stories? At first, modernizing pulpit rabbis in cities like Warsaw or Bucharest needing to relate to those flocking to the city but still nostalgic for their Hasidic upbringing, they incorporated oral traditions and Hasidic lore. Then Western literary figures such as Buber produced Neo-Hasidism, and finally Hasidim themselves took to the genre. In the inter-war period, the focus of the stories shifts from the Rebbe to the common man and to social issues. Now, in the last thirty years these stories are recast as authentic Hasidic modes of being and as if actually written by the Hasidic court. (For more on the topic- see my review of the recent literature here).

Menashe Ungar was non-observant journalist who had grown up as the son of a prominent Hasidic rabbi, receiving rabbinic ordination at the age of 17 – then he turned his back on the religious world to attend university and join the Labor Zionist movement. He worked as a stone mason and journalist, and eventually emigrated to America, where he spent the remainder of his life writing about East European Jews, their histories, folk tales and wisdom. His stories incorporates stories that were told by his family into his historical account as well as those he gleaned as part of the Yiddish ethnography projects as a collector (zamler). Centered around a core narrative of crisis in Hasidic leadership, Unger offers a detailed account of the everyday Hasidic court life—filled with plenty of alcohol, stolen geese, and wives pleading with their husbands to come back home- enough to please an ethnographer. The book was first published in Buenos Aires in 1949. Unger’s volume became one of the leading sources for the legends of the Kotzker and reflects a period when Eastern European Jewish immigrants enjoyed reading about Hasidic culture in Yiddish articles and books, even as they themselves were rapidly assimilating into American culture.

1) What is the relationship of Unger, a secularist with socialist leanings, to his religious past?

Most accounts we have today of nineteenth-century Hasidic life are either hagiographic, Maskilic, or academic. Hagiographic accounts are generally produced by or for the community of descendants and posthumous followers of earlier leaders and movements. Maskilic accounts were polemics, often containing information that is of retrospective value, but primarily designed in their own time to show how much Hasidic life was “stuck in the past,” and sometimes how much Hasidic masters were manipulating their followers. Recent academic historiography of Hasidism has, to a large extent, begun to focus on the social forms and everyday lives of earlier Hasidim, rather than on religious ideologies, and it is producing extremely valuable work.

Unger’s extensive body of writing about Hasidism doesn’t really fit well within the above typology. He was the youngest son of the Rebbe of Zhabno, a striking figure who comes across, at least in some accounts, as both extremely punctilious (he refused to eat the meat slaughtered by a shochet who had yawned on Shabbes) and extremely concerned with the welfare of Jews (he was known for his work to find ways to release agunot in the aftermath of World War I). With his family, Menashe spent the years of World War I as a refugee in Vienna. In those years as well, he was the close friend and eventually brother-in-lawof the future Bluzhever Rebbe (who like Unger came to America). So, while Unger was raised within that traditionalist world, perhaps precisely because he had older brothers who could carry on the tradition of leadership, he was freer than they to break away from it. He obviously became a freethinker, but it seems equally clear that if he ever “rebelled” against Hasidism, that rebellion did not crystallize, as it did for so many others, into a lifelong ideology of anti-religiosity or anti-Hasidism. If anything, Unger seems to have stressed those aspects of Hasidism that might, for a progressive generation, have seemed something like harbingers or first stirrings of socialism.

At the same time, Unger shares with today’s historiographers of “flesh and blood Hasidim” the recognition that however remarkable their doctrines and forms of organization may have been, they were flawed and very mortal beings, like the rest of us. Thus, for example, the book contains extensive and detailed discussions of the consumption of alcohol. This feature especially caught the interest of my friend Glenn Dynner, who wrote the introduction right after publishing a book about Jewish tavern keeping in Eastern Europe.

Similarly, Unger imaginatively but convincingly details the participation of Jewish rank-and-file and especially of Jewish community leaders in the Polish uprising of 1830 in a way that fully represents the Jewish specificity of their deliberations about whether or not to do so.

2) Unger was in his time called an ethnographer, thoughts?

I would be cautious about calling him an ethnographer—and that’s not because the title is a particularly exalted one, but rather because it suggests canons of both method and representation to which Unger did not necessarily adhere. Something like “ethnographic novelist” would be more appropriate. But then another level of specification is needed, at least for this particular book, which somehow manages to read as though it were an eyewitness account. So figure me if I suggest the exceedingly awkward portmanteau “ethnographic-memoristic novelist.”

One gets the impression that at many points he’s assembling pieces of narrative that he received orally in childhood. Here I’m extrapolating from my reading of another remarkable book about the Kotsker Rebbe—Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose Kotsk: In Gerangl Far Emesdikeyt was posthumously published in 1973.There Heschel explains that, growing up in a milieu of Gerer Hasidim in Warsaw, he was told many stories about the Kotsker who had lived a century before. One has the impression that, with Unger as with Heschel, such childhood stories formed not only the narrative font, but the bedrock sensibilities around which the entire book is constructed.

In Heschel’s magnificent book, it’s often hard to tell where the Kotsker’s thought ends and Heschel’s own begins. But in any case, Heschel’s main goal is to give the reader a powerful sense of the Kotsker’s moral vision. That comes through in Unger’s book as well, but again, Unger seems more to imagine the Hasidim he writes about as people with whom we can identify, people who, so to speak, we might ourselves be if we had lived in their time and place. The Kotsker himself, whose life presents a dramatic story at both the individual and communal levels, has been a favorite theme of many Yiddish writers, perhaps most famously until now Joseph Opatoshu in his In Polish Woods.

3) How much is fiction and how much true in these stories?

Although for some-especially historians and genealogists, perhaps-that’s the $64,000 question, it’s not one I’m making any attempt to sort out here, especially in my role as translator. Even asking it gets us into some very deep-water questions about the making of history—as if somehow the best historiography was “all true” and not at all “fiction.” It’s not hard to see the problems with that formulation, even if you’re not a radical constructionist.

But the question remains an intriguing one; however you want to nuance it. Nowhere does the original Yiddish book publication indicate that this is a “novel,” and perhaps Unger wanted the question of its genre to be left ambiguous. (Unlike contemporary writers, he probably didn’t have to face a publisher’s PR departments with their requirements for knowing exactly how to pigeonhole, and thus market, a particular book).

I think his goal was to rely as much as he could on things that were known and knowable; for instance, the wedding in Ostilye was a famous moment in Hasidic dynastic history. Even more pertinent to the book’s verisimilitude is the inclusion of “external” (non-Hasidic and non-Jewish history), especially the chapters about the Polish rebellion of 1830 that I mentioned above. At a slightly more fine-grained scale, many of the incidents portrayed (say, the encounters with particular Hasidic leaders in Ostilye) may have been based on Unger’s research about the Hasidic alignments at the time, or about accounts he either found in collections of Hasidic vignettes or heard in his own childhood. Bottom line: he wanted it both to be entertaining and compelling, and to be as “true” as he could make it.

4) Do you attach any significance to the book being published in 1949 Argentina after the Holocaust?

It appeared as part of Dos Poylishe Yidntum (Polish Jewry), a major series undertaken by the Argentina Yiddishists which, as far as I know, went on for decades. Like most Yiddish writers, while Unger was paid for serializing his work in the Yiddish press, he generally had to find pre-subscribers and other supporters to publish his work in book form. I remember visiting the Yiddish writer Benek Kac in Paris in the early 1980s, and seeing on his coffee table a list of names under the heading, “To send books and ask for money.”

Jonathan boyarin

5) What is ethnography and why is it important to understand Judaism?

Ethnography originally meant the description (“graphy” or writing down) of a particular people (“ethnos”) and their culture. That was back in the day when it was plausible to think of people as mostly interacting with their own ethnic group, and hence of “cultures” as distinct, intact wholes.

The term is used much more broadly today for the qualitative description of almost any social setting where a set of people (defined and delimited at least for certain purposes and for a certain period of time) interact in ways that are to be discerned by the ethnographer. In regard particularly to the study of Judaism, Jews and Jewishness, this means that rather than starting with a notion what defines those things, an ethnographer spends time with a subset of the people called Jews and studies what they actually do, say, eat, fight about, and so forth.

Ethnography thus helps us get away from sterile arguments about what Judaism really is, or who really is a Jew.

In periods of rapid geographical, social and cultural change, it’s an especially fine-grained tool for studying continuities and discontinuities-especially those between one Jewish generation and their ancestors, and between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors. For example, when I wrote about the changing congregation of the Stanton Street Shul, I explained that the young people who join become members of the “Chevra Bnai Yaakov Anshei Brzezan.” That name of course means “people of Brzezan,” but none of these young people are from Brzezan or even had ancestors from that place. Still, there’s a significant sense in which they become what I call “fictive Brzezaner” when they join the congregation. Or at least it seemed that way to me when I was writing in 2008. Even then some of the younger members thought I was just being a romantic anthropologist, and if I were writing today, I don’t know if I’d try to make that argument. So again, one of the useful things ethnography does (when it’s done right) is to make it clear that what we’re being given is a snapshot, and not a distilled cultural essence.

6) What is your conception and method in anthropology?

My method in anthropology is to get in there and talk to the people. I do always try to “get in there” in an unobtrusive way. Part of the reason I became an ethnographer of “my own people” was that I couldn’t easily imaging just showing up to some group of people with whom I had no historical or other connection and saying, “Okay, tell me all about your kinship rules.” Of course the other reason—and the main reason why I made the statistically unwise career choice to become a cultural anthropologist—was simply a burning desire to gain some sense of the Yiddish-speaking world my ancestors had come out of. Besides, this was a time when the colonial assumptions of earlier anthropologists—that it was always “us” studying “them”—were being criticized in favor of “letting the natives talk back” and likewise, in seeing that we, too, “have culture.” A Berkeley anthropologist named Gerald Berreman actually wrote a famous article in the early ‘70s called “Bringing It All Back Home.” It reads as fairly tame now, but it was quite a new perspective then.

Especially as a graduate student, it was terribly important to me that this work have some political relevance. In that context, Walter Benjamin turned out to be an absolutely key influence. His “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” and especially his insistence that the memory of the dead has revolutionary power, and that we must fight, among other things, to protect those dead from domination, helped me think about possible links between my nostalgic desire to understand East European Jewish life and my political concerns in my own time. More broadly (and perhaps less tendentiously), his work on the analysis of bits of past culture gave me some clues about how to approach a culture in ruins, one which to a large extent could only be reconstructed through the assemblage of fragmented memories. Thus, through his writings, he taught me that the lives of the ancestors still mattered—something that, otherwise, might have seemed nothing but a chauvinistic or nostalgic indulgence of ethnic identity.

7 ) What is the connection of Native American Indians and Jews?

My interest, when I wrote The Unconverted Self, wasn’t really to explore what Indians and Jews might have in common, other than the different and similar ways both of those groups have served as foils for the elaboration of the European Christian—and particularly Catholic—collective self. In fact I juxtaposed rather than comparing Jews to Indians: I identified the former as a collective Other both earlier than the Christian collective identity and inside Christendom, and the latter as an Other “discovered” after Christendom had been more or less settled, and outside the bounds of that realm. So ultimately that book is about the temporal and spatial boundaries of a dominant collective, and especially the anxiety those boundaries mark and create.

8 ) You do your work very close up and very self-referential either in your Stanton Street Shul book, is this style unique?

This style—is certainly not unique to me. It’s one of the varieties of what is called auto-ethnography, a term that’s used to mean both study of one’s own group, and study of the group through self-examination. I suppose I’m doing both forms of auto-ethnography at once. I use it because it works for me. I’ve never been comfortable doing formal interviews or surveys.

More positively, I decided a long time ago that I was going to integrate my research with my own personal development as closely as possible. One advantage of this, I think, is that my writing sticks fairly close to what I actually see and hear. I never start from current theory and then try to draw on bits of my experience to confirm, refute or modify that theory—although to be sure, broad comparative concerns (such as the ethnography of reading, or the politics of memory) have something to do with the situations I place myself in, and what I notice or record about them. One disadvantage of this method, at least for some readers, is that they find passages in my reading solipsistic or a bit self-absorbed. I can stand that, although I do dread coming off as arrogant!

9) How does your study affect or shape your religious life?

I’ve never thought about this way before, but it may be that in my more recent ethnographies of the Jewish Lower East Side I’m really working on some big issue related to the very possibility of making myself as a Jew there.

For the book about the Stanton Street Shul, it was something like the question of authenticity versus continuity: could I recognize the young adults who formed the new congregation as somehow “my people” (something that had been very easy for me when most of the congregation were East European immigrants)? What to make of the fact that my wife and I were staying and growing older, while the young adults who stayed for a few years and moved on, only to have others replace them, somehow seemed to stay forever young?

In my current work learning at—and learning about—the yeshiva on the Lower East Side, I’m doing, I guess, at least three things. One is trying to gain some of the facility in the study of texts that is, after all, the traditional criterion for a fully-franchised male in Rabbinic Judaism. Another is gathering material for what I now expect to eventually become a publishable, book-length ethnography—although I didn’t know that when I started studying there. The third, and for me most important, is the learning itself. One of the things I like about the yeshiva, as opposed to the academy, is that there’s no obligation to produce. There, study is not only its own reward; it is its own goal.

Miriam Gedwiser on the Glickman/Katz Dialogue

In the middle of the Glickman/Katz discussion on Facebook, there was a juxtaposition of the words progressive and the traditional phrase “our women” as well a discussion of the sanctity of the ezrat nashim (women’s section). This in turn lead to the guest post below from  Miriam Gedwiser. This post is not a critique of either party, nor is it concerned with the original intentions of the authors, rather an essay on her perceptions of the rhetoric of the discussion as an woman.


“He who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, may He bless this entire holy congregation…them, their wives, sons, and daughters, and all that is theirs.” (~Shabbat Morning misheberach)

How is an Orthodox woman who reads these words supposed to react? Is she part of the “holy congregation” or just the wife of someone who is? What if she is no one’s wife?

Most likely, she has never noticed the incongruity. If she has, she probably continues to mumble these words with the same sort of intention she has regarding praying for the scholars of Babylonia a few paragraphs before – a “well, we get the basic idea” sentiment. But this text is just one in a wide web of small incongruities that add up to relegate women to the margins while men occupy the communal default. It’s the same web under which it is normal for a woman to attend a shul a half dozen times to say kaddish without any rabbi coming over to introduce himself or ask after her, while her visiting nephew will receive a welcome on his second visit.

Rabbis who do not want to needlessly exclude women need to watch how they talk and act. They need to stop saying “when each and every one of us puts on tefillin each morning” in a sermon to a half-female audience. They need to say “people” to a mixed audience only when they mean men and women. And this extends to learning Torah as well. When teaching halachot regarding gender distinctions, they should not talk in English about how “a man is obligated in X, but an ishah is not,” as if women are some strange halachic category unrelated to our world. Similarly, when a halachist talks about “our women,” he makes clear (even unintentionally) not only that his audience is male, but that the communal relationship of men to women is heirarchical, paternalistic, and exclusionary. (The same applies to those who talk this way while supporting expanded roles for women in the halachic world. link:

It was therefore ironic to us to see Rabbi Katz’ teshuvah promoted – or derided – as unusually “progressive.” A teshuvah that allows some women marginally greater access to synagogue using paternalistic terms such as “our women” gets us no closer to true inclusion of women in the halachic community than if the same teshuvah reached the opposite conclusion. And if the opposite of “ezrat nashim” (women’s section) is called “ezrat yisrael” (Jewish section?), what does that say of the inclusion of women in the polity of Israel? At the beginning of his discussion, further, Rabbi Katz considers the (non-marginal) halachic position that the women’s section does not, in fact, have the same status of kedushat beit haknesset as the men’s. Even though he concludes that it does, the very discussion reinforces the underlying instinct that women are different, other, inherently outside.

Of course, Rabbi Katz did not invent these terms. This discussion is not about him or Rabbi Glickman. Still, in the case of phrases such as “our women,” he could have easily used something else, but he did not – why? It was suggested on facebook that that’s just how rabbis talk in “the style of traditional teshuvot.” The verbal exclusion of women becomes a self-justifying phenomenon. Others suggested that using this conventional language lends an air of authenticity to the teshuvah. Even if that was not R. Katz’s purpose, it is probably a correct description of the way first-impressions of halachic texts are sometimes formed: we ask, do they fit the lingo? But let’s think about that for a minute: We sense a halachic text is “real” or “authentic” in part because it marginalizes women. Further, when we pass matters of rhetoric and enter the substance, had Rabbi Katz not addressed whether the women’s section is an equal part of the beit knesset, it would have been an omission worthy of critique. So the only way to halachically discuss being slightly more inclusive of certain women in synagogue life is to raise concepts that inherently alienate all women, as a category, from the synagogue..

Which is perhaps why this author (a nursing mother and professional teacher of Torah) is writing a critique not of the substance of Rabbi Katz’s halachic discussion, but on the meta-question of the nature of halachic discourse. I can’t get to the former without wading through the latter, and at some point reading texts that are about yourself, but not for you, becomes too hard to let pass without comment.

Conclusion – Rabbi Ysoscher Katz and Rabbi Ozer Glickman

Dear Readers, the story played out fine. A discussion started in prior prejudice of an alleged misplaced progressivism and an assumed instrumental social view gave way to understanding and shalom between Torah scholars. Below are the final statements from Rabbis Glickman and Katz. Part One with the responsa and original complaints was here.

scholarly debate

From Rabbi Glickman

How Rav Ysoscher Katz fooled me and what I learned

Along with its oft-realized potential for Chillul haShem, the internet can also forge new relationships that can blossom into powerful friendships. I first encountered Rav Ysoscher Katz on Facebook. I knew of him only vaguely through Rav Avi Weiss and Dr. Hillel Jaffe, two friends of mine who have been, of course, heavily involved with Yeshivat Chovevei haTorah. Rav Katz reached out to me since we were both participating in the Orthodox Forum this March and we arranged to eat lunch one day. From there, we began to message one another.

When Rav Katz published a couple of notices that referred to his Torah as “progressive,” I wrote him a private, respectful note asking him why he needed to modify the Torah he teaches. He thought this was an important conversation and invited me to post a note on his Facebook wall which I did. This occasioned a back-and-forth, not about his teshuva but about the couching of it as social commentary. Unlike many of the commenters on FB, I actually read his teshuva before commenting and didn’t think it was at all problematic and hardly needed any criticism or haskamah from me.

The original thrust of our discussion was lost as others shifted the conversation to things that interested them, starting new threads and elevating the discourse. I was happy when Rav Katz acknowledged my point and reformulated his language to make it clear that we actually didn’t disagree. His halakhic teachings are in fact not just a vehicle for his political and social views and everyone is happy.

Late last night, when everyone in my home had gone to bed, I was reviewing a siman of Yoreh Deah in my study when my phone jingled with the distinctive sound that heralds a message of some sort. It was Rav Katz, confirming a date for lunch next week. I was in the middle of a comment of the Shach on why the sugya of tipas chalav is not merely a case of tzli and assur k’dei netilah. It’s a well-known kushya in Yoreh Deah. While Rav Katz was typing a response, I was reading a gloss by haGaon Rabbi Akiva Iger that I had underlined years ago and didn’t remember why. It was just the kind of thing that strikes me. The gaon writes that the din of measuring against the whole chaticha cannot be as the Shach characterizes it, a bow to a safeik as to the nature of milk, because it is mentioned in the mishnah. The mishnah is always mei’ikar ha-din, unless it stipulates otherwise. Without thinking, I shared it with Rav Katz and he seemed as animated by it as I was, referring to a rishon elsewhere that affirms the same thing and his general contention that mishnah is about fact…

Now this insight of the Gaon is the kind of thing that really gets me thinking. II can be lost to the world and my wife will ask me what’s bothering me. I have learned not to respond. She doesn’t share my excitement over comments like these.

Here’s the thing, though: Rav Ysoscher Katz does. He is struck by the same methodological comments that suddenly appear when you least expect them and offer deep insight into the literary nature of the sources.

Well, he had me fooled. The rallying of his base with the modifier “progressive” and the emphasis on the Modern in Modern Orthodox were misdirections. It turns out, as he told me from the outset, that we are interested in the same things, that we share many of the same passions.

Last night, we talked about how a Satmar boy raised in the chassidische yeshiva world wound up in the same place as the son of a maskil who spoke in Ashkenazic Hebrew to his children, who taught his son Bialik and Tchernechovski and made him read Albright and Kramer before his Bar Mitzvah, who taught him hundreds of pages of Eyn Yaakov so he wouldn’t waste his time on halakhah… how these two boys wound up in the same place. Yesterday would have been my mother’s 90th birthday had she lived longer than her 65 years and I thought all day about how I have come to be where I am. Last night’s late conversation about life and journeys was very important to me.

So here it is. I found a new friend who loves Torah in much the same way as I do, who enjoys incorporating insights from academia in the spirit of Mada l’maan ha-Torah. Next time, I think I’ll get to know someone before drawing any conclusions.


Response of Rabbi Katz

Observance of mitzvot is rewarded in Olam Haba’ah. The Mishna in Peah (1:1), however, introduces a special category of mitzvot that carry additional compensation. The Mishna has a list of mitzvot which, in addition to generating reward in Olam Haba’ah, also allows people to be אוכל פירותיהם בעולם הזה; to reap benefits in this world. According to Maimonides, אוכל פירותיהם בעולם הזה means that those mitzvot also carry sociological benefits. They have the ability to improve our social fabric and make the world a better place. Somewhat surprisingly, one finds Talmud Torah in that list. Learning Torah, despite being a cerebral pursuit, apparently also has sociological and psychological benefits, it too can make this world a better and happier place.

My experience these last two weeks was an extreme embodiment of this premise. I wrote the teshuvah on breastfeeding in shul for academic and legal purposes. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that this intellectual pursuit will also provide emotional and personal benefits. Instead of being attacked by the usual shrill voices in our community, I was privileged to have someone from across the aisle reach out to me and with a firm but sensitive voice engage me in dialogue. R Ozer raised serious questions about my jurisprudential methodology but did it with the kindness and sensitivity befitting a talmid chacham of his caliber.

While I expected this engagement to be another run of the mill debate, it unexpectedly turned into a very meaningful and stimulating friendship, a true fulfillment of the Mishna’s promise, that proper Torah can also heal social ills.

While we both share an aversion to pesak with an agenda, we respectfully disagree on the degree to which pre-determined convictions can inform the judicial process. While this is an important question, it is not the only one contemporary poskim need to grapple with.

Halakhic Judaism is at a crossroads, new realities confront us with new challenges. To authentically address them important conversations need to happen, some of Halakha’s principles need to be assessed and reevaluated. While there are many questions we need to address, I will list the three most burning ones (in my opinion).

1) What should the posek’s starting assumption be when answering a question? Does the posek assume things are assur, unless proven otherwise? Or, should the starting point be that things are mutar, in which case the onus is on the legal system to prove that the heter assumption was wrong.

2) Given the tradition’s understanding that הלכה is not mere observance, that it is also הליכה, a way of life and a mode of being in this world, how does one create a Halakhic system that generates a proper religious equilibrium, one that runs on the healthy center, and is neither too lenient nor overly stringent?

3) Finally, given my own chassidish upbringing, I am very curious to know if and how Chasidic theology can and should influence our pesika. I have no doubt that in previous generations, Chassidic theology played a role in the judicial thinking of many Chassidish poskim. I would like to unpack that process and figure out how it could be replicated in our current judicial arena.

I am thrilled about this new friendship with my colleague from the other side of the intra-denominational divide. I hope and pray that this relationship can blossom and grow, eventually leading to many more conversations. Hopefully they will ultimately lead to a richer and more sophisticated religiosity for both of our camps.

Apropos of the teshuvah which generated this beautiful debate, chazal actually use a breastfeeding analogy to convey the enormity of Torah. The Rabbis tell us (Eiruvin 64b) that studying Torah is compared to a child being breastfed. Just as the breast provides milk for the infant anytime she latches on, so too does the Torah provide constant nourishment whenever we turn to it for spiritual sustenance. I suspect that this breastfeeding teshuvah will continue to nourish our intra-denominational friendship, allowing it to constantly grow and expand. Working together will give us a better chance at creating a genuine torat emet, one that is true to Torah’s essence and to its mandate.

מורי, ידידי, כהנה וכהנה!

From Rabbi Glickman

I returned to the yeshiva yesterday (I don’t teach every Monday, only every other week). The guys were back from all over these United States, Israel, Europe, etc. where they spent Pesach at home with their families. YU has much more geographical diversity among its students these days. This means there is someone with whom to discuss real football, the kind where you don’t touch the ball with your hands unless you’re wearing gloves. המבין יבין

Wonders of wonders, there was a tremendous amount of discussion about my budding friendship with Rav Ysoscher Katz shlit”a. For those who don’t know him, he’s the talmid chacham who tries to sound cool and progressive but is actually not so progressive, at least not in a prescriptive way. I mean…. enough! He’s a talmid chacham and I like him. That’s good enough for me.

A number of students from my massively overtallied Tuesday halakha class stayed around to discuss l’affaire l’allaitement. They had all read it. Nice to know, at least until all the grades are in, that my students disagree with the assessment of the many commenters on Facebook who found me a) just a politician; b) ignorant of legal theory; and c) a poor student of the responsa literature. The conversation moved out of the classroom after minchah and devolved into a discussion of the internet and the etiquette of posting.

This continued over dinner with one of my colleagues, a very distinguished long-time Rosh Yeshiva. In a nutshell, he doesn’t share my views although he would dispute the contention that I don’t understand shu”t. Thanks for that.

Here are the conclusions I shared with my students (the Rosh Yeshiva doesn’t have a Facebook account although he has heard of it).

  1. Treat people with respect, even if you do not agree with them. We all enjoyed the commenter who addressed RYK with title, called me by my last name, and dismissed what I had to say as uninteresting hackneyed politics. He later apologized by saying he is not a rav and this is the way he and his friends talk in shul. Note to self: find out where he davvens (or talks) and avoid it.
  2. If you are going to comment on a teshuva, read it first.
  3. If you read something written by someone who is generally considered to be a scholar of some standing and you think you can refute it off the top of your head, there is a good chance you didn’t understand what he or she was saying. Even b’nai Torah can be guilty of this.
  4. Most people aren’t interested in what you have to say. They critique your post as an asmakhta for their own ideas. It would be good to first read carefully what you said because they don’t look very fair when they then repeat in other words what you already wrote.
  5. The internet is not the best place for Torah discussion but it is where lots of people meet. Be prepared for all the annoying behavior mentioned above and just get over yourself.
  6. Be aware that there are always angry people with their own issues who take anyone who actually works for the Jewish community in a public role as a target for their own pathologies. Ignore them.
  7. Most of the time, ignore 6. The vast majority of people are nice (a little unthinking sometimes so get over yourself and let them misinterpret and insult you because chances are you do it, too).
  8. Don’t ascribe deep dark motivations to people with whom you don’t agree. This even applies to Open Orthodoxy (joke, okay?).
  9. Which brings me to 8: irony can be lost when words are only printed on a screen. Whenever you’re insulted, chalk it up to a joke that didn’t go over.
  10. Take periodic long vacations from the internet. Like I am about to do.

Kol Tuv

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz and Rabbi Ozer Glickman – Rounds One and Two

Recently, Rabbi Ysoscher Katz released a teshuva permitting breast-feeding in shul. In turn Rabbi Ozer Glickman commented on Facebook, generating the start of a discussion between them. Facebook does not do well for hosting such a conversation; it was moved to this blog. The discussion will be on Facebook. But first a few prefaces.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is the Chair of the Talmud Department. at Yeshivat. Chovevei Torah; Director of the Lindenbaum. Center for the Study of Halakha received ordination from Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, dayan of UTA Satmer. Rabbi Katz studied in Brisk and in Yeshivat Beit Yosef, Navaradok.

Rabbi Ozer is a Rosh Yeshiva at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He has worked in hedge funds, banking, and risk management. He has also studied critical Talmud in the general academy.

The interesting contrast here is that the former has moved from the Haredi world to the modern world and is self-conscious as modern, while the latter has moved from the Conservative Conservadox world and is self-conscious of his journey.

The Topic: Breastfeeding in public was accepting in many segments of the United States for the last few decades, but the discussion was opened anew in 2007-2008 when people objected to a magazine cover. It quickly became another chip in the culture wars for the last eight years. However, recently Pope Francis made a bold action and others affirmed the act as natural. Rabbi Katz wrote a teshuva permitting breast feeding in public, here is the definitive Hebrew version online, and  as PDF Breastfeeding and showing affection in shul. Word Breastfeeding and Showing Affection in Shul. 

Finally, who is supporting breastfeeding in public? The clearest answer is a select percentage of millennials since they are of child birthing years.

Rabbi Glickman responded to the Teshvah with a Facebook post rejecting Rabbi Katz’s current self-identity as modern and his pesak as a modern pesak as meaningful for someone deciding Jewish law. Remember, the discussion will be on Rabbi Katz’s wall. The conclusion was posted three days later here.


On the Politics of P’sak

At the invitation of Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, I am publishing thoughts on his recent piece on nursing in shul posted on Facebook. Rabbi Katz and I have begun to develop a relationship founded on the mutual respect appropriate for two b’nai Torah in public and private discourse. At the outset, let me state unequivocally that I acknowledge Rabbi Katz to be a talmid chacham with the highest standards of integrity and honesty. I value his opinion, sincerity, and Torah knowledge. That said, there is a fundamental disagreement that has cropped up on the last three things of his that I have read. I am looking forward to discussing this difference with Rabbi Katz personally after the chagim at what we hope will be the first of several regular discussions.

When Rabbi Katz published his invitation to the community to participate in Torah study and prayer on Shabbat ha-Gadol, I noticed it. The Torah was described as “progressive.” I guess that is a dog-whistle word to the base, i.e., proponents of so-called Open Orthodoxy, that the Torah would be to their social and political taste. Given our relationship of candor with one another, I wrote to him privately (eschewing the mores of social media which demand a snarky, arrogant dismissal, often anonymous) questioning whether Torah should be consciously anything other than Torah. We agreed to table the discussion.

When Rabbi Katz published his post on kitniyot, I noticed it again. Rabbi Katz offered one suggestion for those that self-identify as Modern Orthodox and another for those who self-identify as ultra-Orthodox. I again responded, this time in the comments but with respect and affection.

When I read his piece on nursing, I saw the trope again and this time I am moved to respond to him in more detail (I will at a later time comment on the specific textual readings he offers in his extraordinarily well-written teshuva).

It is clear that poskim operate on the basis of political (in the policy rather than electoral sense) views. As human beings who engage with society, they cannot help but have views on the societies in which we live. I do not believe, however, that a genuine poseik ever proceeds with a conscious political agenda. Poskim may intend their decisions for certain ethnicities within the Jewish people that maintain distinct halakhic traditions and practices but never for groups that self-identify sociologically. Writing a Modern Orthodox teshuva is not the same.

It reminds me of a cousin by marriage who is a Conservative Rabbi. When he has discussed halakhah with me, he never discusses the issues; he can only refer to decisions by the Rabbinical Assembly or the United Synagogue. There is no supposition that there is anything actually called Halakhah without a prefix.

I do not teach Modern Orthodox Halakhah in the Yeshiva and I suspect Rabbi Katz doesn’t in his either. I don’t write teshuvot (there are plenty of real poskim to do that) but when I teach Torah I attempt to teach the real thing, without a prefix. It isn’t Modern Orthodox and it isn’t even consciously Orthodox- it’s Torah.

This is a major difference between Rabbi Katz and me. He is much more taken with the notion of Modern Orthodoxy. This stands to reason. I grew up in a Conservadox community (the lines weren’t so clear back then) with a lifestyle very close to the one I live today, the major difference being knowledge. My rabbi was a YU musmakh. Whatever I didn’t do correctly during high school wasn’t because I held other beliefs; it was because I didn’t know better. Without being too personal, Rabbi Katz consciously affiliates with a group very different from the one in which he was raised. It is natural, I would think, that he is more conscious of his current affiliation than I am of mine.

But it is more than that. In my mind, Modern Orthodoxy is descriptive, not prescriptive. I would not ever say about any practice, “We don’t do that- we’re Modern Orthodox.” There is no Modern Orthodox halakhah. There are sociological descriptions of what people who identify themselves as Modern Orthodox do. That is more for sociologists than for poskim.

I note the observations that Rabbi Katz makes about “our women.” I do not think the identity between men and women that he describes regarding attitudes toward public prayer and Torah study are as widespread as he represents. If this is a teshuva for his kehillah, then he is well within his mandate. Teshuvot, though, are written for broad swaths of the Jewish people. The mores he describes are limited to small clusters. It may well be that we should aspire to these changes but I know vast swaths of the religious community that self-identifies as Modern Orthodox in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Chicago, Los Angeles, Michigan, Canada, Massachusetts, Tennessee not to mention Yerushalayim, Beit Shemesh, Modiin… where nursing a baby in a minyan would offend.

It may be that the commenter was correct: this was intended as “Open Orthodoxy pesika.” That is a notion that I still find difficult to accept.

Please note: Rabbi Katz and I are committed to a calm, cordial and respectful tone. Our מחלוקות are לשם שמים. It would be nice if commenters would maintain the same tone.

Editors original FB comment: So what is the operative factor here? 1) a self-identified catering to an audience 2) a mistake in what the community reactions are to breastfeeding – the “our women” issue 3)The use of modern/progressive as a meta-halakha?


לכבוד הגאון ר’ עוזר גליקמן שליט”א

אחדשת”ה כראוי וכיאות

I first want to thank you for your thoughtful comments and insightful feedback. It is reassuring to know that in a world of סתירת נערים where people who תורתם אינם אומנותם   promote a Torah which thrives on an ethos of איש את רעהו חיים בלעו, there are still gedolim Be’Torah like yourself, who are able and willing to disagree with dignity and also focus on גופן של דברים.

As for your actual critique: you infer from my writings that I believe in “prefix” pesika, that there is such a thing as “Modern” or “Progressive” Torah, which is intrinsically different than its non-modern or non-progressive form. You argue that such a halakhic posture is wrong. You believe that pesika should be an objective exercise in which religious affiliation or philosophical inclination plays no role. In other words, from your perspective we differ on whether the judicial process is objective or subjective. You claim that my pesika is subjective and are strongly opposed to this approach. You see a major divide in our judicial philosophies.

(While you label it “politics” of psak, I prefer to call it the “philosophy” of psak. Politics describes considerations that are external to the judicial exercise. Philosophy, in contrast, describes considerations that are intrinsic to the pesika enterprise.)

While at first blush it seems that we strongly disagree, we actually agree-with a caveat. I too believe that agenda driven Torah is wrong and inauthentic. I, nevertheless, maintain that it is a mistake to assume that Torah exists in a pristine and objective void. Every posek brings to bear his religious orientation when deciding halakhic matters.

I will illustrate my point with an exercise I use in my halakha classes.

Satmar Rav (Rav Yolish Z”L) and R. Moshe Feinstein Z”L famously disagreed on three things, chalav stam, artificial insemination, and the required height of the mechitza.

I do not reveal to my students which views each of them held. I only tell them that each respectively paskened the same way on all three, le’chumra, or le’kulah. I then ask them if they can guess who paskened leniently and who stringently. Using the information they have about these two poskim’s judicial personalities, they always guess correctly:  that R. Moshe took the more lenient position on all three issues, while Satmar Rav paskened more stringently on all three.

This outcome is not a coincidence. Their consistent approach implies that there is an underlying principle informing their decisions, an overarching “philosophy” that animates their pesak. This to me is clear evidence that each posek brings a certain orientation to his pesika. The Satmar Rav’s orientation towards chumra was based on his suspicious view of human nature. R. Moshe had the opposite orientation. His halakhic orientation was permissive because he was less cynical about human intentions.

Therefore, regardless of how much a posek claims that his psak is objective, it is simply untrue. Every psak is guided by the posek’s convictions and internal value system. A posek should consequently not strive for an objectivity which does not exist. He instead needs to develop an internal compass which will lead towards an “orientation” which is true to the text and consistent with tradition’s values. While not determinative, this orientation will then guide the posek’s pursuit of Torat emes.

Personally, my pesika is agenda free but at the same time guided by a deep sense of what I believe the Torah was meant to do. In my case, it is a strong belief that a Torat chaim coupled with a Torat chesed (Mishlei 31) is one which is aware of contemporary realities and proactively responds to them.

Derech agav, I also wish to address what seems to be a slight misunderstanding about a phrase I use in the Teshuva. When I mention “our women” (נשי דידן), I was talking about shul going, not breastfeeding.

It was an argument I utilized in the context of addressing the judicial silence on the subject. As I researched the topic I was surprised to learn that in close to two thousand years of pesika, the question of breastfeeding in shul never arose.

I believe that the explanation is sociological, that female shul attendance on the scale we are witnessing today is a relatively new phenomenon and, therefore, questions relating to female presence in shul rarely if ever came up. Until recently, women, especially those of child bearing age, would attend shul twice a year, on Rosh Ha’shana for tekiat shofar and Yom Kippur for however long they could stay in shul. (In certain communities they would also come for the kria of parshat zachor.)  A Rabbi, consequently, was never asked to address this question, breastfeeding moms were not in shul. Today this sociological reality is no longer true. “Our women” have full-fledged lives even during their child-bearing years. They have rich secular and professional lives and expect the same in the religious arena.  Thus when I was referring to “,נשי דידן” I was making a sociological, not a judicial claim.

בידידות והוקרה, ובברכת חג כשר ושמח,


To this Rabbi Glickman responded:

I enjoyed again reading your thoughts. I am especially charmed by the conscious desire to narrow the gap between us. Our positions may be a reflection of either our temperaments or characters. It may simply boil down to the fact that Ysoscher Katz is a much nicer person than Ozer Glickman. This is something I suspected when I first met you.

My recalcitrance, however, is unconscious and unwitting. And that is precisely my point. I may have views on economics, politics, and social policy and they may impact my view of halakhah. I suspect that they may be very different from yours. They do not, however, directly determine how I read a gemara. You and I can debate the meaning of a text and its relative weight in halakhic decision-making without dealing with the political differences between us. We are not encapsulated by our political personae and neither are the poskim to whom we both look for guidance.

The parallels between Open Orthodoxy and classical Conservative Judaism are too great to ignore. Consider Professor Louis Finkelstein’s The Pharisees in which the rabbis are transformed to populists beneficently caring for the downtrodden masses and Rabbi Akiva is recast as FDR. Consider Professor Louis Ginzberg’s essay “On the Significance of the Halakhah for Jewish History.” Beis Shammai represent the mindset of the wealthy capitalist and Beis Hillel the perspectives of labor. I do not need to reject their analyses out of hand if there is historical truth in what they claim. My point was that poskim are not prisoners of their political mindsets and that Jewish law is not social policy.

Classical Conservative Judaism failed when the historical analyses of Finkelstein and Ginzburg were turned from being descriptive into being prescriptive. Open Orthodoxy makes the same error. I simply don’t believe that Beis Hillel set out to decide halakhic matters on the basis of their philosophic approach. It was unwitting. They and all other poskim would not routinely violate what they believed textually should be the correct halakhah in favor of a philosophic principle. I attribute a greater degree of intellectual honesty to them. If the demands of the system say forbidden, all the orientation in the world won’t change the final decision.

A detail: I didn’t misconstrue what you meant by “our women.” In the Modern Orthodox community in which I live, women attend shul but not as frequently as men do. Open Orthodoxy seeks identity between the genders. I neither believe that the facts on the ground, at least in the part of the ground that I live on, support this nor do I believe that it would be a good thing if they did. Equality does not mean identity, but that’s a discussion for another time.

The exercise you describe in your halakhah class was very enlightening. I’d like to propose another exercise for your classroom. Next time you are writing on a woman-oriented halakhic question, let the students vote how their rebbe would decide before looking into any sources. I’m willing to bet they know the answer every time. Did I for a moment believe that a progressive would not assert a woman’s right to nurse? Anywhere? At any time?

That isn’t the case in my classroom, by the way, so at least we are consistent. I may have a formalist notion of law and it may be a major factor in the way I weigh legal sources. You may be a legal realist and it may be a major factor in the way you weigh legal sources. When I ponder a halakhic problem, however, that orientation is unconscious. I may not be reading the sources with full objectivity but I strive to. This makes me less predictable. Another discussion for another time: rabbinic Judaism appears to me to be unassailable formalist. That’s worth dis-cussing, too.

At this point in our discussion, though, which I hope will continue פנים אל פנים, I think we can be candid with one another. For my part, I think that an Orthodoxy that is dominated by progressivism is neither Orthodox nor Open. To redeem myself in your eyes, I am going to find some progressive question where my scholarly Kohanic friend will prove the point by opting for halakhic integrity over the fashionable mores of Riverdale.

Uh oh! I guess I just proved that I am right: you are a nicer person than I am!

בידידות ובהוקרה רבה



Editors note- (1) Rabbi Louis Ginzberg’s approach to historically situate Halakhah and its evolution was used by Rabbi Ezriel Hildeshimer and Rabbis David Zvi Hoffman, as committed students of Von Savigny. So too at Jew’s College in London, see Rabbi Isidor Epstein introduction to the Soncino Talmud on the evolution of the law, or Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, even by Polei Agudah’s Rabbi Kalman Kahane approves of a historical approach. Prof. Jacob Katz, whose work is influential at YU is seen as the heir to that method.

(2) See the classic Marshall Sklare, Conservative Judaism (1955, updated 1972) where he notes that in the 1940’s, 1950’s, and into the 1960’s the laity were not observant of the dietary laws or the Sabbath and  they did not turn to rabbis for permission or leniency. Both Sklare and more recently Prof. Jonathan Sarna emphasized that the movement was congregational – meaning that each congregation decided on their own and even a public vote or ritual committee could decide- no halakhah was needed. A shul could choose to hold a non-kosher non-Sabbath observant Hadassah excursions. For more discussion, see Sklare chapter 7 to show that these theories of Conservative law were only a concern of a narrow right wing while unknown and with no effect on the unconcerned laity.

(3) Legal realists who dealt extensively with solving practical issues to generate their response include Rav Moshe Issues, Maharam Mintz of Padua, Rav Yitzhak Elchanan, Rav DZ Hoffmann, Rav Waldenberg, and even Rabbi Liebes of the Rabbinical Alliance.

Rav Ozer,

It is Erev Yom Tov, but briefly, three quick points:

1) Your latest response very much reminds me of arguments I often have with my Satmar friends. In my conversations with them they will occasionally evoke the “milchama against tziyonos” as a justification for certain behaviors. I quickly remind them that the “war” is long over! Presented as a justification for particular actions, it is really an excuse for inaction.

When our opponents evoke the “C” (Conservative movement) argument I feel the same way. They cite old tropes as an excuse for ignoring new challenges. It adds nothing substantive to the debate.  Our scourge is internal, not external. Our dor faces real challenges (high attrition rates, religious apathy, etc.), repeating the Conservative movement’s mistakes, however, is not one of them. Instead of throwing out clichés, let us work together to inspire our communities.  We desperately need to revivify a Modern Orthodoxy that has become dormant and apathetic.

2) While Professor Lieberman may have overstated his case, we now know that his claims have a strong basis in the facts. Much new scholarship has been written on Qumarn in the interim. Scholars like Chana Verman, Vered Noam, Aaron Shemesh, and others have done incredible comparative work on that community. Their arguments make it abundantly clear that Chazal were in dialogue with the Dead Sea communities, offering a more tolerant bent towards the tradition. Their research makes clear that even Chazal were informed by a particular orientation when establishing Rabbinic Judaism.

3) If we are looking at historical precedence, it would be a mistake to not also look at the 12th century. R. Tam, as is well known, revolutionized our understanding of the strictures of hilchot Avodah Zara. He consistently modified the absolute prohibitions that Masechet seems to impose on interfaith commerce. He clearly did not approach masechet Avodah Zara objectively, without a predetermined orientation. To claim that his consistently lenient conclusions are coincidental is far fetched and highly unlikely.  The more likely explanation is that he approached his pesok on this topic with an eye towards the financial wellbeing of his community. Proving once again that judicial orientation is an integral part of the judicial process.

Thanks again for this fruitful conversation. Hopefully this will be the beginning of many more, להגדיל תורה ולהאדירה.

A freilichen yom tov,


Editors note: We are still wishing that Rabbi Katz would be more careful in the use of words like progressive, modern, evolution, or respond to reality. These words have been the subject of denominational debates, which he is seemingly unburdened.

Also what is the role of all this newly read historicist scholarship in his pesak? The pronouncements in scholarly articles relying on the latest changes in social sciences are not Aharonim. Why do they have a role?

Will all of Rabbi Katz’s pesak be reactive rather than constructive? Rabbi Glickman gave him an opening to call himself a legal realist, he should have taken it.

Now dear readers, like the Shakespearean  narrator, I step back for the FB discussion to unfold in several acts. Be aware that as I post the opening act, they are already busy scribing their third round.

Conclusion is here.

Open Orthodox Haggadah- Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

By all criteria the Lieberman Open Orthodox Haggadah by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld released just two weeks before Passover is a smashing success, quickly selling out of its initial run of 5000 copies. Not bad for a haggadah that is mainly made up of long articles and op-eds.  But more than this, it is the first book or statement produced by a significant pulpit rabbi within the Open Orthodoxy wing of Modern Orthodoxy.  Congregants have already bought every copy, yet historians should acquire a copy of this work to document the changes in American Jewry.


The Lieberman Open Orthodox Haggadah is quite self- conscious of setting out an agenda for the future of Orthodoxy mentioning the word Orthodoxy as a denomination more times and in more combinations than probably any book that I know. Not only does it trumpet Open Orthodoxy, it also points out the limits of Centrist Orthodoxy and the RCA.

But let us start at the beginning with the opening epithet: “There can be no communal redemption without it also being an individual redemption.” The goal of the community is to hear the needs of its individual members. This affirmation is immediately followed by a very concrete example of proclaiming that we will never be redeemed as long as there is even one agunah. The operative words right from the opening remarks are “sensitivity” and “inclusion of our entire community.”

The text includes the family and children with basic questions for guiding children or beginners before each section, with a distinctive invention for a haggadah, an answer key in the back. The questions are about the lived experience of the seder such as: Why are parents happy for mah nishtaneh? Or in what languages can it be recited?

The majority of the haggadah consists of long essays by the author but much of it consists of guest authors including Rabbi Asher Lopatin, Maharat Ruth Balinsky, Rabbi Avi Weiss, and even the non-Jewish public relations professional to whom they sell their Chometz. These essays confront the reader with our first clear list of Open Orthodox positions including  kol ishah, infertility sensitivity, on entering a church, on including the mentally challenged, the need for Maharats, increasing the role of women, the problems with current conversion policy, and the need to solve the problem of agunot. It may be the first self-proclaimed Orthodox haggadah to support Women of the Wall, discuss the importance of Martin Luther King, and to suggest placing a cup for Miriam on the table and an orange on the seder plate.

Willy-nilly, one finds oneself reading about the agunah problem while everyone is singing dayenu and about the rapid downfall of a local rabbi who violated everyone’s trust while everyone is singing Ha Gadya. For many, these juxtapositions will be the first impression of the haggadah.

What is the message of this haggadah about Passover for those who take the time to read it fully? Herzfeld considers the essence of baking matzos is the need to push ourselves in life. We need to challenge ourselves to succeed; we need spiritual adrenaline, and not settle for mediocrity. Why must matzo baking be done in eighteen minutes? Herzfeld cites the widely read Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle is a 2009 book by Dan Senor and Saul Singer to teach us that we have to act in real life quickly and decisively.  When we fight the Chametz within, we have to change ourselves forever and seek challenges. This Hagadah offers a message for active people- doers who want to change the world.

The community addressed sees itself as go-getters and achievers- baking matzos themselves, succeeding in their careers, and taking position of Judaism as their own.  Herzfeld encourages individuals and families to gain control of their ritual life. After the destruction of the Temple, Judaism is no longer about priests but ordinary person. The haggadah reflects an ethos that educated laity should take an active role.

The Haggadah opens with an essay by the father of Open Orthodoxy Rabbi Avi Weiss but nevertheless I see the historical value in the haggadah as reflecting the current younger and mid-career pulpit rabbis, rather than the issues of the older generation. (I may argue this in a future post as a review of his own book.)

Nevertheless, Rav Avi provides  an unambiguous affirmation of revelation stating that Open Orthodoxy is “completely committed to torah min hashamayim, to believe that God wrote the Torah.” Future readers now have a formal statement as lapidary as that written by Rabbi J. H. Hertz that   “Judaism stands or falls with its belief in the historical actuality of the Revelation at Sinai.”

Rav Avi defines Open Orthodoxy as “the meticulous observance of halakhah,” and “at the same time it is open- inclusivive, pluralistic, and non-judgmental.” Notice that the younger Herzfeld was more about action and pragmatics than offering a definition. Weiss complains that the Centrist Orthodoxy version of Modern Orthodoxy has turned right, rigid, and closed. In contrast, he is envisions the movement as encouraging greater women’s roles, and sensitivity to sexual orientation, but distances himself from the egalitarianism of the liberal movements whom he considers heterodox. Rav Avi advocates for outreach through accepting people as they are in order to increase their involvement, and a mesorah that faces new situations. The message is that Centrist Orthodoxy was forced to revamp and has already made changes.

It is noticeable that innovations not currently practiced in Orthodox synagogues such as Partnership Minyanim are not mentioned. There is no significant use of historical context, academic Jewish studies, or source criticism. The volume is not aimed at those who seek an intellectual discussion. Its audience is not seeking aesthetics or Torah uMadda. In addition, there is neither focus on the Holocaust nor any on the State of Israel.

I would compare this volume to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s out of print programmatic 1983 Haggadah where he used the text to present his agenda as a “window of the Jewish future.” He envisioned solving the agunah problem, increasing women’s roles, and leading a glorious return to Israel. In order to make the text accessible to the newly observant, Riskin sought to have everything fully explained. In contrast, Herzfeld’s volume assumes an already frum readership in that there are no instructions or indications of what to do, but also the basics are available elsewhere.

What is at stake with this programmatic haggadah? Several reviewers –JTA, JPost- mentioned the similarity in using the haggadah as a platform for denominational clarity to several early 20th century Reform haggadot. I will offer another comparison, that of the 1929 controversy for the Vilna Rabbinate between Rabbi Isaac Rubinstein and Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski. The later was undoubtedly the great scholar but the rabbinic establishment had lost the trust of the people.  In contrast, the Mizrachi leader was a tireless worker for the people, was on all Jewish welfare boards, lead day schools, and was seen as listening to the people’s problems. He was also in favor of secular studies, economic productivity, and the return to the land. Hence, Rubinstein the industrious Mizrachi rabbi was elected to be rabbi in Vilna over the Rosh Yeshiva. There is a fictional version of the controversy for the rabbinate in Chaim Grade’s “The Rebbetzin” and in The Agunah we read a depiction of the loss of trust in the Vilna Rabbinate in that the rabbis are not helping the people with social issues, unlike the lone wolf unorthodox Mizrachi rabbi who was willing to rely on leniencies to help an agunah. Not only in 1929, but also in 1983, and 2015 the plight of the agunah remains a concern. (Has anything been learned?)

I would not overly push the comparison to 1929 rabbinical controversy, but what is common to both is what anthropologist Bruce Lincoln considers essential to authority, that is confidence and trust. In both cases there has been a loss of trust, hence a loss of authority, a large number of Orthodox laity has lost their trust in the Roshei Yeshiva and in the establishment. If there is public debate about the need to submit to authority, then according to Bruce Lincoln the discussion is already a sign that the implicit trust is lost.

Many of the critics of Open Orthodoxy have self-destructed in recent years– one is even on way to jail. To those who lost their trust, Rabbis with desk jobs or minor rabbinic functionaries are irrelevant. Internet critics and bickering is extraneous to regaining trust. As in 1929, it would take a major Centrist pulpit rabbi to offer something to the people to regain their trust, to make them feel heard and addressed. A haggadah can only contain this much critique of the system if a significant number of homes did not already feel alienated.

One should not say that this is only a small group and anecdotally say that my neighbors agree with me. There is a shift in the younger laity. And several synagogues in various parts of the US replaced their long time rabbis with newer YU rabbis who are more about inclusion, family activities, and social orientation.


The translation created for the volume has colloquialisms and is awkward at points to read in public. More worrying is that it is theologically not thought through. The haggadah uses as the translation of the blessing formula “Be blessed God, our God” as if the two divine names were interchangeable. On the other hand, in some places we find lines that read as “my lord, our G-d” indicating a different translator.

Personally, both academically and spiritually, I prefer a focus on the text of the seder as explained by Abarbanel, Maharal, Gra, or Shelah and Sefat Emet. It was not written for my intellectual or spiritual edification, or for those who want to hear about how God took us out from Egypt with a strong hand and outstretched arm.

In short, this Haggadah oozes moxie and a direct appeal to those who like the Orthodox lifestyle but find a tension with what they perceive as the abuses of the system. For them, they do not need reasons for the commandments, rather an active commitment, determination and ability to overcome their social concerns. All who are hungry  for this moxie, let them come and eat.