Finally, after years of thought and preparation, I am both happy and humbled to say that the first unit of this work is now complete enough to offer it.
From the preface:
The frequency of marriages between Jews and non-Jews has become a major challenge to those who take responsibility for thinking about the essentials of Jewish life and the core of what it means to be Jewish. Until recently, this conversation has oscillated between two options: either the non-Jewish spouse chooses to become a Jew (technically this is an intermarriage) or s/he doesn’t (a mixed marriage). When the choice is made to become a Jew, the discussion again oscillates between two options: either the transition must include a commitment to practice the mitzvot by the standards of the officiating rabbi (strict) or the transition can be completed with a commitment to accepting the principle of “the yoke of the mitzvot,” which takes into account a recognition of the minimum levels of observance that most of the Jewish partners practice (conversion “light”).
What follows, then, begins with the concerns raised by our Rebbe about our own practices in Jewish Renewal surrounding conversion to Judaism. Next, we take the responsa of three rabbis as representative samples of the two approaches to choosing Judaism when there are only two options, namely whether acceptance of the mitzvot is in the particular or the general. We then review the category of ger toshav as expressed in the Talmud and the Rambam and conclude the first unit of this work with a discussion of a renewed use of the category of ger toshav for our time.
Renewing Get Toshav is now a part of the ALEPH ReSources Catalog. I’m asking that you give at least a small donation to ALEPH Canada and the Integral Halachah Institute, with the option of increasing it if you are so inclined. In addition, having it as part of the store allows us to know who has purchased it so that we can send updates as they are ready (and at no extra charge).
Here is the link:
The election of Donald Trump has had an effect on the OHALAH list similar to that of Israel in past years. The assumption by some contributors that all members share more or less the same responses leads to pushback from others who feel themselves in the minority. Occasional sharp responses reinforce this sense of not truly belonging and lead to a fear of sharing, further distorting the discussion.
In my contribution to this discussion, I wrote, in part:
The Alter Rebbe wrote in the Tanya that every Jew is prepared to die al kiddush hashem at the moment of saying the sh’ma; but that willingness fades as soon as s/he leaves shul. So his whole book is aimed at people like us and is directed toward helping us maintain that consciousness of complete surrender to and identification with what the Holy One is asking from us at any given moment. Yes, Reb Zalman didn’t want us fighting with one another. But it is also Reb Zalman who began advocating for eco-kashrut, for a respect of the living consciousness of the planet, for a spirituality and practice which engages the world.…So these are the “political” issues I believe are appropriate and needed on our list. How are we practicing what we preach? What can we learn from each other about issue based advocacy from a spiritual perspective? How do we highlight and reinforce values and courage through the study of kabbalah, creative liturgy, and modelling?
It seemed that no one noticed what I wrote (except for one off line response) and, a few days later, someone again asked what would Reb Zalman say about this issue, though I have no doubt that he would have responded in the way I suggested. At the same time, I also know that I was not being deliberately ignored. It is often the case that the discussion on this list, and I assume on others as well, moves so quickly and topics change so frequently, that a kind of forgetfulness is inevitable.
I receive the list as a daily digest and am always frustrated by how many previous posts I need to scroll through to get to the next message. I finally realized that this is likely because most people receive each post as a separate message, immediately hit reply, adding another message to a growing list. And, at the same time, awareness of the thread becomes limited to the previous message alone, to which the contributor is responding.
I believe that this is what happened to me as my message moved farther down the list. It simply was no longer visible as others added their own thoughts during the time it took me to decide to write, to actually write, and then to post.
So, I have two suggestions:
1. Switch to a daily digest, read the thread at least as it existed for the day in question, and then post your own thoughts. This will lead to a deeper thoughtfulness and would also be the equivalent to listening to several points of view before sharing your own. And a by-product would be that the list contains fewer repostings of the same messages.
2. Give serious consideration to what I believe Reb Zalman would be saying to us, namely that our responses to the current political situation in the U.S. arise from our deepest consciousness of the unity of all in the One, the awareness of Gaia as a living being, and a desire to build connections between people and between people and the planet.
1. Paul Krugman recently wrote that Trump voters are going to experience another round of betrayal and abandonment when what he now calls “Ryancare” passes. Assuming he is right, how can we reach out to these people, not to lecture them from a moral high ground or “I told you so,” which only stiffens their resistance to evidence, but from a place of compassion and empathy. This is a spiritual question with serious practical implications.
2. In another N.Y. Times column, the author wrote that cultivating people who voted for third and fourth parties is the key, since they constitute more than enough votes to have changed the balance in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio. I see that as a solid argument based on analysis of voting data and, at the same time, an expression of politics as only about winning, no matter how the losers then feel. I think that weakness manifested during the Obama years. So, assuming that the chances of a progressive win could be greatly increased by this strategy, and likely it can, then how do spiritual people help to structure that win so that it doesn’t feel like warfare against those who hold another point of view, particularly since that demographic is older and a diminishing percentage of the electorate? Every Yom Kippur we pray that we not be thrust aside when we become old, so how do we show respect for those whose influence is waning?
Despite the fact that I live in Canada, almost every discussion I have here turns to the U.S. and Donald Trump. We are as worried and fearful as Americans are. Climate change knows no borders, fossil fuel extraction and shipping affects us all, and Canadians are acutely sensitive to developments south of border because of their immediate impact on our lives. So I offer my thoughts from the same places of fear and apprehension.
Two signs of a successful spiritual practice are the ability to remain focused in spite of distractions and keeping the long term vision present as we respond to the immediate.
My prayer is that we help each other to sustain our personal spiritual practices and to respond compassionately and effectively to the needs of the moment in ways that advance the coming of mashi’ach, may that be soon.
During the recent OHALAH conference in Colorado (15-18 January), I had the opportunity of giving an introduction to the nearly completed first stage of a project to identify a way to renew ger toshav / permanent resident as well as an update on the various projects I have been working on. I am happy to now share that report with you.
This comes at a moment of deep worry about issues of inclusion and relationships with “others.” Last weekend, President Trump signed the order which legitimized suspicion of others, particularly Muslims, and applied blanket restrictions on their travel and eligibility for asylum in the United States. And, almost literally as I write this, we in Canada have also experienced a terrible attack on Muslims in prayer at their mosque in Quebec City, leaving six dead and five in serious to critical condition in hospital.
As I say in my talk, it may seem anachronistic to talk about the renewal of ger toshav when there is so much to respond to and distract us from this kind of work. At the same time, I believe it to be an act of faith in a better future, something which has motivated Jews for centuries despite and during the more terrible times in our own history. A renewed ger toshav opens doors and makes boundaries more porous, allowing for deep relationships between Jews and those with whom we have love affairs, whether as parts of shared families or community life or both. We therefore affirm our belief in a better world, one which we help bring into being, and chart at least one more step in that direction, even as we stand in opposition to current fears. It is my hope that you will see this project for what I hope it is, namely that small step in the messianic direction so needed as we struggle to bring light to our lives and those of the countries in which we live.
At the end of the talk, I shared a prayer for peace from an album by Maureen Nehedar called “Asleep in the Bosom of Childhood.” The links to both the talk and the prayer are below.
With prayers for light and peace as we begin to move into Spring.
Over three years ago, I shared a table containing a triennial cycle of haftarot to accompany the triennial cycle of Torah readings most of us use. I was concerned, for those of us who have a haftarah as part of our services, that we were reading prophetic sections on an annual cycle, which seemed to elevate these portions of Nach to a higher level than that of the Torah itself. Further, haftarot now shared a connection to the Torah portion only once every three years. Lastly, I also thought that if haftarot were shorter, then more of us might be inclined to include them, even if only occasionally.
Several of you let me know that it would be much easier to add a haftarah if the haftarot themselves were easier to access. I’m happy to say that I’ve now completed a file which contains all the proposed haftarot in full.
The current format is Hebrew first and English below. I’ve taken the English directly from the JPS translation which I purchased online. The Hebrew comes from Davka’s Judaic Classics deluxe. And, since I used these online sources, I’ve made the book available for free with the option to make donations to support the work of the Integral Halachah Institute.
The only change I made to the JPS translation is to substitute Yhvh for LORD. More than that would have delayed this offering for much too long.
You can find this triennial cycle of haftarot in the ReSources Catalog (“Shop”) on the ALEPH Canada website.
I hope that this effort will encourage both the reading of the Torah and these haftarot. Please, as always, feel free to share this with others you think may be interested. I would also particularly enjoy an exchange of comments and questions on this website.
There is much talk about continuing the fight following the election of Donald Trump, fighting for what’s right, fighting for minority rights, fighting for health care, fighting climate change. I would like to respectfully suggest that this vocabulary of war feeds the increasingly hostile political discourse in the United States and encroaches on the values and priorities of political systems outside the US.
A year ago, Canadians had the choice of continuing with a Conservative government which, in many ways, mirrored that of the Bush administration or voting for a change. In Canada, the parallel to the electoral college is that a party can find itself with a majority in the House of Commons even though it has received only a minority of the popular vote. This was the case with our previous (and our current) government, which won less than 40% of the popular vote while achieving majority status in parliament. Canadians chose change and did so by strategic voting for the candidate in their riding most likely to defeat the Conservative. Thus, our current Liberal government knows that its majority really stems from the 60% of Canadian voters who voted to change the government with 20% of the vote for change going to other parties.
Our Liberals ran on a platform of inclusion, pledging to enact real climate change legislation, rebuild our own infrastructure, relate to First Nations with respect, and accept scientific research and findings when designing policy. And the rest of us agreed to give them a chance and to hold them accountable to their promises. So far, the track record on both sides is pretty good.
What I respond to in the Liberal approach is that it is not framed in the language of warfare. I have resigned my membership in the provincial NDP (New Democratic Party, the party of my family for three generations) precisely because I can no longer tolerate the war metaphors which reflect an old paradigm understanding of politics. I no longer care about party loyalty to the degree I used to and have focused my financial giving on issue based organizations instead.
I would like to suggest that one response we can all make to the current political situation in the US is to encourage the removal of the language of war from the political discourse. Let’s not talk about battleground states and instead let’s talk about states whose residents are troubled and uncertain about future direction. Let’s not talk about red versus blue and instead let’s talk about how the transition to cleaner energy can be managed so that those whose jobs and often self-esteem depend on fossil fuels can be supported and assisted in making the transition. Let’s be clear that climate change is not a political issue but a human one which transcends competing economic theories.
Most fundamentally, let’s remember what was at the core of Reb Zalman’s world view and of that of Jewish Renewal’s founding generation, that Gaia is alive and conscious, that everything is within the same God, that the only way we will get it together is together. There is no enemy, no right versus wrong (for the most part), there is only us trying to figure out how to live together on this magnificent planet we all call home.
Reb Zalman was a strong advocate for the halachic process. Most of us know that he developed a new halachic principle which he called “The Psycho-Halachic Process” and which we now call Integral Halachah. But we are less familiar and also less comfortable with his corollary that contemporary halachah also needs to be backwards compatible.
As part of the coursework in the ALEPH Rabbinic Program, we assign a series of lectures given by R. Ethan Tucker at Mechon Hadar, originally titled something like “Core Issues in Halachah.” In the first of these lectures (to which I strongly encourage you to listen if you haven’t already), he makes the point that, if we are going to consult with our predecessors before making recommendations to the people who inquire of us, then we need to keep an open mind and a willingness to be influenced by them.
It’s possible that R. Tucker meant that, by keeping open the willingness to be influenced, we are allowing for the possibility that we will choose to accept the decisions of these predecessors and opt for a more traditional lifestyle. And, if so, it is also possible that this is what constrains many of us from consulting these sources, since advocates of this approach are really expecting us to see the wisdom of the past and adopt it for ourselves. In other words, the more I consult with the past, the more conservative my practice will become and this is an outcome which we know intuitively is not the one we most need. It is equally possible, of course, that R. Tucker didn’t have this as an ulterior motive and is open to being influenced by the past in other ways as well.
Some years ago, Reb Zalman challenged what he saw as too much leniency in our conversion process, to the point where he said that if we did not put a tallit kattan on a Jew by choice as he (in this case) emerged from the mikveh, then we had done nothing. (And, when I challenged him in return, he said that he truly meant what he said literally and not figuratively.) Now, after several years of study and work, I’m attaching a draft of the preface to what has become a multi-sectioned book written in response to his challenge. Over these years, I have had the opportunity to consult with many sources, both primary and secondary. As will be pointed out in the pages of the book, Reb Zalman favoured the renewal of the Ger Toshav as an alternative to a full conversion where it was clear that the person did not really want to become a fully practicing Jew. He wanted to see an alternative which honoured the person’s desire to be part of a local Jewish community at arm’s length. He was also quite clear that becoming a ger toshav was not permission to marry a Jew.
The more I searched the sources, the more I realized that the argument over standards for conversion was not simply about whether the rabbi made it easy or hard. Even more surprising was that there exists an ongoing discussion of the ger toshav and its applicability to changed circumstances which is mistakenly portrayed as having been settled by the Rambam. Thus, the more I learned, the more open I became to a different way of looking both at the process of giyur itself and at the possibility of a renewed ger toshav. As someone who had not officiated at marriages between a Jew and a non-Jew, my own position has become much more open and flexible as a result of this consultation with both predecessors and contemporaries.
This book will be the subject of this year’s halachah plenary and a follow-up workshop at OHALAH and, over the next few weeks, I hope to attach drafts of the subsequent units for you to review.
Blessings to all as we move through the remainder of Av and approach the season of our individual and communal introspection.
Last time, I wrote about how we Jews contain our suffering by focusing on remembering it for limited times during the annual cycle of the calendar. Truth is, I don’t see this as a profound teaching so much as a simple observation. Do you remember how we used to say that the people of the north had so many different words to describe snow? This was because being able to recognize the varied qualities of the snow reflected the need to appreciate these differences in order to enhance survival or perhaps because living in the midst of so much snow made people aware of subtle differences in its qualities.
I’ve been told that this is not really true, though I still find it intriguing. Applied to the way Hebrew reflects our values, it is striking to notice how many words we have for praise and appreciation. In those two paragraphs that conclude P’sukay d’Zimra on Shabbat morning, there are 20 different words for our primary obligation to praise and show gratitude as well as the obligation to go beyond the praises we have received. Is there any wonder, then, that our liturgy is so vast?
Here is what I think is truly amazing: No matter how much our suffering and pain tries to pull us down into despair, we continue to focus on what is positive and beautiful about our existence on this planet, where everything sings God’s praises. We therefore have so many poems and prayers of praise that we cannot include them all in our liturgy. Some are said every day, others only on Shabbat and holidays, still others are limited to specific days and times, and many others only exist in special collections, if at all.
And, this phenomenon is not limited to liturgy. Think of the incredibly vast literature of Kabbalah, whose surface we barely touch with our focus on the four worlds and the ten sefirot. Most of us have no more than a passing acquaintance with the Zohar, a brief nod to the volumes of Hassidic writings, and perhaps an acknowledgment that there is a whole literature devoted to moral and ethical development. We are also virtually unaware of the whole area of Kabbalah called Ta’amei ha’Mitzvot which I’m told (since I also have had almost no contact with this corpus) is even larger than the sephirotic literature.
Which brings me to the often disparaged area of Halachah. Here also is a corpus of work aimed at both establishing the general rules and principles of a God-centred life and responding to the specific needs and questions of lives lived in response to the Divine call emanating daily from Sinai. Here, again, the body of halachic writings divides into two major units: the codes and their commentaries which focus on the general principles and the even larger unit of responsa, responses to specific questions about the application of general principles to life’s unique challenges in each generation.
It is true that there have been times when halachists have circled the wagons. It is also true that for the vast majority of the centuries of our existence, this process has been open, respectful of people’s needs and practices, sensitive to the changing conditions of life. Because we tend to hold onto beliefs, and because the halachic process as we have inherited it is of the circle the wagons variety, we continue to think that Halachah is the enemy and that what we do on our email lists and together at conferences and retreats is something different. In truth, however, it’s really a continuation of the halachic process with additional guiding principles (i.e. Integral Halachah). It is primarily our resistance to reviewing past responses to similar questions that seems to separate our process from that of the past. And I urge us all to give more thought to the need to balance our individual needs with that of Clal Yisrael, past, present, and future.
Reb Zalman believed very strongly that the halachic process, with the additional principles he developed, is something in which we need to participate. I know that his commitment to this over-arching principle transcended any particular conclusions or positions he advocated. This will become clear as I begin to post the sections of a work on Ger Tzedek/Get Toshav which began as a response to his concerns and took a turn that ran counter to his specific proposals. When I told him that this was happening, he said that he understood and could accept that his talmidim would use his categories to arrive at their/our own conclusions.
Why is Judaism so…?
Many years ago during a Yom Kippur Torah reading, I encouraged people to ask any question they wanted about Judaism. One person asked, “Why is Judaism always so solemn?” I responded by saying that this perception came from the fact that he mostly went to shul on Yom Kippur, which is indeed a solemn day. One such day in the year. But if he would come to shul more regularly, he would see that 52 times in a solar year we spent a whole day focused on appreciation, and several more times a year the focus was on joy and freedom during the major (and minor) holidays.
I write this on the morning of the 18th of Tammuz, the day we are observing the beginning of the three weeks leading up to Tish’a b’Av, the fast of the 9th of Av. Today marks the day the outer walls of the first temple were breached, culminating in its destruction three weeks later. These are the 21 days in which we remember the terrible things that have happened to us and that we brought upon ourselves, not only when we went to war against the Babylonians back in the 6th century B.C.E., but also later when we rebelled against the Romans, when so many were martyred during the crusades, and when we were exiled from Spain. When I was a camper at Camp Ramah during high school and before Yom ha’Sho’ah was established, Tish’a b’Av was also when we remembered the destruction of the European Jewish communities.
But less than a week after the only other 24 hour fast on our calendar comes the 15th of Av, when unmarried men and women met in the fields and vineyards to seek out life partners. Only six days after we finish remembering the horror and the paradigm shift forced on us by the loss of both temples, we are dancing and celebrating love and optimism.
For three weeks we allow ourselves to dwell on the pain we have endured for bearing witness to our understanding of a God-centred world and then we get back to our calling.
שֶׁכֵּן חוֹבַת כָּל־הַיְצוּרִים לְפָנֶיךָ י־ה־ו־ה אֱלֹהֵינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ וְאִמּוֹתֵינוּ,
לְהוֹדוֹת לְהַלֵּל לְשַׁבֵּחַ, לְפָאֵר לְרוֹמֵם לְהַדֵּר, לְבָרֵךְ לְעַלֵּה וּלְקַלֵּס
עַל כָּל־דִּבְרֵי שִׁירוֹת וְתִשְׁבְּחוֹת דָּוִד בֶּן־יִשַׁי עַבְדְּךָ מְשִׁיחֶךָ.
For this is the [true] duty of all creatures before You, Yah our God and the God of our fathers and mothers, to acknowledge, to praise, to exalt, to make beautiful, to lift up and adorn, to bless and give more praise going beyond all the words of song and praise uttered by David, Yishai’s son, your servant and anointed one.
Our real duty is not to be sad about how hard it is to be a Jew, not to dwell on the tragedies and mistakes of the past and even the present, but to realistically face them, mourn over them when appropriate, and then pick ourselves up and get back to singing, composing, appreciating this amazing world we have been given to care for, and living in such a way that we connect our aspirations to our actions.
I’ve just finished a weekend of teaching about Integral Halachach at Or Shalom and Limmud Vancouver. Naturally, I’ve been thinking about how much better I would have done if only I had…
So rather than indulge in wishing I could do it over knowing now what I didn’t know then, I thought I would share some of those thoughts as a way of continuing the discussion beyond the time limits imposed by the events.
I had assumed that people would share the feeling that many of you have or have had, namely that Halachah as we have learned it is oppressive and overly focused on answers which establish correctness of practice. My approach was to show how the halachic process was always relevant to people’s lives, that it goes beyond the codes to a literature which is responsive to individual situations, and that it is founded on transcending ethical principles and recognition of human frailties. All this in order to keep us on the path we began to walk at Sinai and which will reach its destination sometime in the future with a redeemed world and united humanity.
While people were genuinely receptive, curious, and politely challenging (this is Canada, after all), many of them consistently turned to a somewhat different perspective. Given, they said, that people are not engaged in or even familiar with halachic conversation, how were we to reach out to them? And, of course, for many of these people, the ones to whom they wanted outreach were their own children.
My response was mostly that the forms of outreach were no longer something that I knew much about. That had been my focus, our focus, decades ago when we founded the institutions which are now the components of Jewish Renewal. Outreach is something I now leave to another generation to discover and what I could do is invite people to join the process of halachic conversation in an effort to explore the new questions of our time using both the tools we inherited as well as that of Integral Halachah. And I touched, but only touched, on some of those questions.
On reflection, though, I think that this could have been more of a focus. As R. Ethan Tucker pointed out in his lecture series on Halachah, the withdrawal of the Orthodox establishment in Germany from the rest of the community in the late 19th century also meant the retraction of the halachic process from the questions and issues facing all those who were not already committed to this Orthodox approach to Jewish practice. But if we are truly concerned about whether Generation X and millennials will engage the issues of their lives using the tools of our tradition, then our spiritual and religious conversations need to be willing to engage those issues.
I dropped one potential bombshell when I said that getting on an airplane is approaching being immoral. I said this to a room full of people who fly often, many of whom are my personal and old friends. And I still fly myself. But what is our responsibility to the planet, to our children and grandchildren? To what extent is flying an indulgence and a dangerous one at that? I have a friend on Hornby Island who will not fly on principle. Is that a moral stance which we should emulate?
This is one of the dozens of real ethical questions relating to climate change which should be on the schedule of our adult education programs, our Torah discussions, and our personal practice. God is in the details, I like to say, and what would happen if we who are now the elders engaged those details in an effort to have them reveal the presence of God in the world? How would it change the elders and what impact might that have on our children and grandchildren?
Affirming the Halachic Process is certainly one of the more difficult things for many of us in ALEPH. Like so many others, we are weighed down by the insistence of our more Orthodox colleagues that Halachah is self verifying and contained due to its Divine origin in the nighttime teachings that the Holy Blessed One imparted to Moshe Rabbeinu after each day’s writing of the written Torah. Each succeeding generation is farther from the origin moment and thus more prone to confusion and increasingly dependent on the rulings of those who have gone before us. Thus, the Halachah of the moment is uncovered by a careful analysis of the texts from the past and each new situation must be comparable to some concept or precedent from that past.
While totally aware of this phenomenon, Reb Zalman z”l was still committed to the halachic process by which we link the needs of the moment to the precedents of the past. He also believed that this was possible only by instituting a new principle which would allow the past to continue to speak to us while also providing a greater degree of freedom in determining our responses to the questions of our time. Thus, what he originally called Psycho-Halachah and which we renamed Integral Halachah was born, a new principle which both included and transcended the past and which acknowledged the paradigm shift in which we are living.
Three years ago, the OHALAH program committee inaugurated an annual Halachah Panel at the conference. Starting with the second of these panels, we began to ask rabbis who had been students in our program to present the t’shuvot which were their final projects in the area of Rabbinic Texts. Each year, now entering the third, we have edited and presented three of these t’shuvot as we also begin to gather them for more public distribution.
And, in the first three years, I gave a short introduction to the panel on the basics of Integral Halachah and why I agreed with Reb Zalman that this was a process to which at least some of us should contribute. I have now edited those three introductions into a single document, my personal introduction to this process, and offer it to you all.
Some of you may remember that Reb Zalman wrote in his introduction to the book Integral Halachah: Transcending and Including, that his thoughts on this subject were a beginning and not a final product. Thus, my small contribution can be seen as complementary to what the two of us printed in the book and the student t’shuvot also complement and add detail to the broad strokes of the earlier work.
Blessings to all for a light-filled Hanukkah and with prayers for meaningful decisions from the current climate change meetings in Paris.
Rabbi Daniel Siegel, Dayan
Founding Director: Integral Halachah Institute