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Belogski



Assorted thoughts, observations and articles on Judaism and the state of the Jewish world today



Updated: 2016-09-02T18:54:21.624+01:00

 



This Blog has a New Home

2011-03-26T21:14:29.729+00:00

This blog has now moved.

Its new home is http://www.rabbibelovski.co.uk/.

Please adjust your Favourites accordingly...



A Thoughtful Post about Limmud

2011-02-25T09:55:25.081+00:00

Readers may be interested in a very interesting and thoughtful perspective on Limmud from my friend Dr. Ben Elton - here.



Thinking Sabbatical

2011-02-02T12:22:49.387+00:00

Thoughts from a returning rabbiIt’s hard to believe that it’s almost over, but I will be returning to ‘normal’ in a few days, following a wonderful winter Sabbatical. I’ve spent much of the last few months in one of my favourite places in the world, the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, where I’ve had the opportunity to study, write and consult world-class scholars in my field of Jewish studies; I have even managed to make good progress on my dissertation. I’m finishing this period feeling renewed and refreshed in many ways: I have in mind ideas for family activities, exciting new projects for my community, fresh perspectives on Israel and Zionism, and complete courses that I hope to teach over the next year. But most importantly for me, I’ve had the chance to think, something that is a rare and precious commodity. Away from the concrete commitments, deadlines for sermons, pastoral emergencies, meetings and teaching schedules that characterise my professional week, I’ve actually been able to think for the first time in years, not just about my research, but about every aspect of life. I brought my mp3 player to Israel, convinced that I’d need to fill the frequent lacunae with music: I’ve used it once. Without space and time, essential issues scarcely surface, let alone get addressed – I cannot overestimate the benefit of having had an extended period of contemplation and self-discovery, with, I hope, some tangible, long-term results. While I appreciate that few are accorded the privilege of a Sabbatical, small snippets of personal time and space for contemplation can be carved from even the busiest of weeks. I know this because my wife has been doing it for years, despite juggling numerous overwhelming personal and professional responsibilities, including managing the rabbi. I know that many people, including me, are nervous of doing this: we wonder what fears, insecurities or unresolved issues will surface and so avoid it all costs, instead filling our spare time with noise and other diversions. Yet we sell ourselves short by not conquering these fears. And during this period, I’ve come to realise something very important. If we don’t appreciate the need to give ourselves space and time, we are unlikely to recognise and encourage its fulfilment in others. For community leaders, this is a stark message: our ability to understand, guide and nurture growth in others is impaired by our neglect of our personal emotional and cerebral needs. I am truly grateful to Golders Green Synagogue and the United Synagogue, for granting me this period to think, and most of all, to my family, who have been wonderfully supportive, despite my extended absences.[...]



This Blog

2010-12-22T21:56:28.655+00:00

I haven't been posting much on this site recently, as I've been focusing on the development of two newer sites: Belovski's Shiurim and Belovski: a view with a room. Do look there for shiurim and more 'weighty' articles.

Meantime, I will continue to post here occasionally, including one in the next few days.



A long-awaited trip to Israel

2010-02-02T12:25:11.512+00:00

My second daughter, Tehilloh, is very excited, as in about a month, God willing, she and I will be spending eight days together in Israel. She will become Bat Mitzvah at the end of June, and this trip to Israel, her first, is her special birthday present from me and my wife.

I have the privilege of visiting Israel often, but for various reasons, my wife gets there only occasionally, and my children not at all. As such, it is a challenge to ensure that our children share our passion for Israel and remain aware of the fact that Israel lies at the centre of all Jewish religious, political and national aspirations. It is too easy for them to spend their childhood in the comfort of Golders Green without properly understanding the importance of Israel and the focal role that it ought to play in their lives and objectives. How does one convey to children living in a Diaspora that is largely happy and supportive of their religious lives that living outside Israel is not ideal? How does one teach Diaspora children to comprehend the miracle of the Jewish return to the Land, celebrate Israel’s successes, commiserate with her failings and identify with Israel and Israelis? How does one make them appreciate that the heart of the Jewish people beats not in Golders Green or Boro Park, but in Jerusalem?

One way that we have devised is to try to take each child for a private, intensive tour of Israel as the main part of the celebration of their religious maturity. I took our eldest daughter three years ago, but I hope that as we get further down the family, my wife will be able to take some of the children for their special tour. The rest of the celebration will be modest – a dinner for family and friends and a Se’udah She’lishit hosted by our community – but the trip to Israel is seen as the ‘big’ experience. While we are there, I hope to take Tehilloh to key places of religious and historical interest (she’s been researching where she would like to go), see some friends, engage in a chessed project and visit a couple of famous people. But mostly, I want Tehilloh to have a fabulous time soaking up the incomparable atmosphere of the Land, to experience its smells, sounds, people, craziness and Jewishness so that she too will get the ‘Israel bug’ that will fill her dreams and aspirations, as my wife and I did years ago. I am confident that this trip will do the job and enable her to understand why when I return from one trip to Israel, I can’t wait to plan the next.

As you can tell, I’m as excited as Tehilloh, even though I’ve done it all before, not least to get eight whole days of private daughter-daddy time. But most of all I’m excited and blessed to have the opportunity to contribute to strengthening Tehilloh’s Jewish identity and helping her to build her connection with our Land.



The place of a non-believing Jew

2010-01-26T15:45:37.174+00:00

At a simchah recently, I bumped into the father of an old friend, whom I hadn’t seen for many years. Charlie was always known as a forthright person, and it was good to see that the passage of twenty years hasn’t changed anything. He asked me what I consider to be the place of a Jew who doesn’t believe in God. He also told me that he remains a proud member of the community and of the Jewish people (he is, and always was, a staunch member of an Orthodox synagogue), but doesn’t believe in God. Charlie confided that he had asked his own rabbi and claimed that he had ‘been unable to handle the question’.

I think that while it’s a matter of great regret that Charlie doesn’t believe in God, and it would be desirable to discuss his beliefs with him in detail, his question deserved an answer.

My response (admittedly unprepared and delivered while struggling to hear over blaring music) was simple. I suggested to Charlie that even if he doesn’t believe in God, Judaism can certainly provide him with meaningful ideas, practices, and occasions for inspiration that will enhance his existence immeasurably. By continuing his association with the Jewish world, he will benefit from a way to contextualise major life-events, from the support of others and from unparalleled opportunities to enhance the lives of others.

How would you have answered?

A version of this article appeared on Cross-Currents




Ironies and opportunities: reflections on the JFS ruling

2009-12-21T16:34:02.855+00:00

Last week, the new Supreme Court of the UK dismissed the appeal of JFS, an Orthodox Jewish school, against a judgment that had branded its admission policy discriminatory. The details of the case (which hinged on how the Law views the unique blend of ethnicity and religion that defines Jewishness in the context of the Race Relations Act) are mystifying even to insiders; the final result is deeply disappointing.

Despite this, there are fascinating and surprisingly positive aspects to the judgment, as well as some delicious ironies that cannot go unmentioned. The ruling itself, which was handed down by only the slimmest of majorities (5-4) offers the most extraordinary vindication of Judaism, the motivation of the Chief Rabbi and of the governors of JFS. Is it not remarkable that Lord Phillips, the president of the court, should open a judgment about Jewish status with excerpts from Deuteronomy about intermarriage? All of the justices asserted that the Chief Rabbi (who is the arbiter of Jewish status for the Orthodox community) acted in the best possible faith and that ‘no-one doubts that he is honestly and sincerely trying to do what he believes that his religion demands of him’. The governors of JFS were also deemed ‘entirely free from moral blame’. Put simply, despite falling foul of the Law, the school’s admission policy, and, by extension, Judaism itself, are not ‘racist’ according to any normative understanding of the word.

Yet the greatest irony is the justices’ realisation, in the words of Lord Phillips, ‘that there may well be a defect in our law of discrimination’. How astounding that legislation drafted to outlaw anti-Semitism, among other evils, has been utilised to achieve what Lord Rodger calls, ‘such manifest discrimination against Jewish schools in comparison with other faith schools’. Catholics and Muslims are entitled to admit children to their schools according to their faith criteria, but following yesterday’s ruling, Orthodox Jews are now not. Lady Hale, who, incidentally, voted against JFS, reflected on whether Jews ‘should be allowed to continue to follow [Jewish] law’ in this regard. Indeed, could one fail to agree with Lord Rodger’s assertion that ‘one can’t help feeling that something has gone wrong’? It is good news that several of the justices felt that there may be a problem with the law. However, while any legislative remedy will certainly be very challenging, we will need to muster the support of those who are able to influence this process to ensure that Judaism is treated on a par with other faiths.

Jewish schools like JFS will now have to continue with the chaotic practice test forced upon them by the ruling. While compliance is, of course, mandatory, it undermines everything that the Jewish schools’ movement holds dear: the universal delivery of Jewish education to Jewish children regardless of practice or affiliation. Yet the Jewish community is renowned for its resourcefulness and ability to turn a crisis into an opportunity. Orthodox synagogues have been inundated with new families seeking schools’ ‘practice certificates’ for their children. Many have no previous affiliation to the Jewish community and their attendance at the synagogue is an unparalleled chance to reach out to them and share with them the beauty of Jewish life and observance. It may well be that this unwanted and unfortunate decision has quite unexpected consequences.



Isn't our meat good enough for you?

2009-12-05T20:52:03.384+00:00

A rabbi goes to heaven and is invited to sit at a banquet attended by Moshe himself. He makes a discreet enquiry and discovers that the food is under Divine supervision. The rabbi whispers in a waiter’s ear, ‘I’ll take the fish!’Many people are puzzled by the suggestion that a rabbi might endorse some area of religious life but be reluctant to partake in it himself. For example, it troubles people that some rabbis won’t eat from certain kosher butchers; others won’t carry on Shabbat, even inside an area enclosed by an ‘eruv’. One hears the obvious concerns about inconsistency expressed in blunt terms: ‘is it kosher or not? If it’s kosher why won’t you eat it, and if it’s not kosher, why should I?’It is not possible to make sense of this phenomenon without examining some of the underlying principles of halachah – Jewish law – and how they differ from common assumptions. Some rabbis, for whatever reason, have been unwilling to teach these ideas, perhaps considering them too uninteresting or abstruse for the average Anglo-Jew. I disagree. Indeed whenever I have tackled this topic, be it in conversation, writing or public lecture, it has been met with appreciation and, I hope, greater understanding.Jewish law is fascinating and complex. Even the word ‘halachah’ (lit. a way to go) indicates a process rather than a ruling. It is a complete system that regulates every area of life, from the mundane to the most profound. Halachah cares not only how we act, but also how we think and feel about ourselves, other human beings, the world itself, and, of course, God. As such, it is all-encompassing in its scope and the opportunity that it gives us to maximise every instant, imbuing it with meaning and purpose. From cradle to grave, boardroom to bedroom, halachah is ever-present, allowing every moment to be experienced through the lens of the Divine.Yet the comprehensive nature of halachah should not be confused with the desire to create a monolithic society in which everyone behaves identically. Indeed, disagreeing is the halachists’ favourite pursuit: unresolved arguments appear on each page of the Talmud and halachic code; in fact, there is only one chapter (in over 500) in the entire Mishnah that doesn’t contain a disagreement! While there are, naturally, established processes by which practical decisions are made, halachah might best be described as ‘organised disorder’ – a vast array of disagreements built on earlier disagreements. Some view this as an insanely unworkable system; others, me included, consider it to be one of Judaism’s greatest strengths. Disorder and multiplicity indicate range and diversity and are actually powerful tools that allow halachah to be applied in a responsive and case-driven manner, rather than as a blunt, insensitive instrument.For example, there is an ancient dispute between major kashrut authorities concerning the pulmonary condition of cattle. While some overlook certain lesions of the lung, others (notably Rabbi Yosef Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch) are of the opinion that animals with such lesions are forbidden. This unresolved disagreement broadly manifests itself in a disparity of practice between Ashkenazim (lenient) and Sephardim (stringent). Yet, understandably, many Ashkenazim choose to be stringent. Another example of this phenomenon is the mediaeval dispute about the distinction between a private domain (where one may construct an ‘eruv’) and a public domain (where one may not). This disagreement resurfaces throughout halachic literature and influences the approaches of modern experts as to where and how one may create an eruv.Although there are well-established community norms in almost every area of law, we have shown that halachah does not offer a single answer to any legal issue, but an array of possibilities, within a[...]



Letter to Jewish Chronicle July 2009

2009-07-10T07:22:09.831+01:00

I sent the following letter for publication to the Jewish Chronicle. It appeared in part in today's edition.

Dear Sir

I write to thank Rabbi Tony Bayfield for unequivocally supporting the Chief Rabbi in his attempt to fight the recent Appeal Court ruling against JFS. Rabbi Bayfield’s admirable response illustrates a point I made in my recent JC article – that acknowledging our differences, rather than pretending that they can be smoothed over, enables us to work together on issues that impact on us all. Unlike your columnist, the predictable Mr. Alderman and a number of other ill-informed correspondents, Rabbi Bayfield understands that the JFS ruling rejects the definition of Jewishness accepted by every Jewish movement in the UK, not just the Orthodox, as it insists that Jewishness is defined by practice, not by descent or conversion by any standard. By this criterion, a Sabbath-observant member of ‘Jews for Jesus’ is considered more Jewish than a non-observant born Jew or one converted by any movement. It is lamentable that so many have used this nadir in Anglo-Jewish history to attack the Chief Rabbi, when the ruling so obviously equally affects his detractors, whose interests he is fighting hard to protect.

Yours faithfully

Harvey Belovski (Rabbi), Golders Green Synagogue, 41 Dunstan Road, NW11 8AE



JCoSS: not cross-communal; at best non-Orthodox

2009-06-26T10:57:21.680+01:00

The imminent opening of JCoSS (Jewish Community Secondary School) has generated unprecedented interest. Adorned with the slogan ‘excellence, choice, openness, inclusion’, its website describes it as ‘the first cross-communal Jewish secondary school in the UK’. JCoSS takes pride in its admissions policy, which ‘will treat on an equal basis all pupils recognised as Jewish by any of the UK’s mainstream movements’ and its intention to deliver Jewish studies ‘while being non-judgemental between the various mainstream Jewish traditions’. JC readers will not be surprised to discover that ‘JCoSS worries Orthodox (United Synagogue) rabbis’ (14/05), nor that in a spurious comparison with Limmud, Miriam Shaviv (21/05) opined that rather than fighting a war already lost, the rabbinate should ‘face facts’ and ‘embrace JCoSS’. The battle-lines seem drawn already. Before exploring further, I acknowledge the certainty that numerous children from US-type homes will attend JCoSS. However the Orthodox rabbinate might prefer the world to look, we will support and nurture the Jewish lives of our communities’ children, irrespective of the educational choices made for them by their parents. It is no secret that in a rare display of virtual unanimity, US rabbis have strongly opposed formal involvement with JCoSS. Yet this has no bearing on our commitment to our children in the school. There is spirited and evolving debate about how to achieve this: some will run out-of-school programming; others are grappling with alternatives to support JCoSS pupils. And it is with deep sadness that we currently feel unable to work within JCoSS: this painful decision is informed by real concern for our children expressed in the context of legitimate anxieties about its identity. Unfortunately, behind the happy ‘cross-communal’ picture painted by JCoSS’s professional website and cautiously-worded literature, there lies a confused ideology that conflicts squarely with basic Orthodox principles. I am certain that JCoSS will indeed try to teach its pupils ‘about all the mainstream traditions within Judaism’, in a non-judgemental way and ‘to understand and respect all the UK’s mainstream Jewish traditions’. This inclusivism may even succeed at a practical level - the school intends its kitchens to be kosher and its weekend programmes to be Shabbat-observant, even if it can’t commit to closing on second-day Yom Tov. But ideologically this descends into pluralistic incoherence. Presumably, pupils will be taught that some believe the Torah to be the unmediated word of God, while others think that it was authored by human beings; that some consider traditional Shabbat restrictions to be optional, but others consider them absolutely binding; that while the Torah itself expressly forbids certain types of relationships, some movements consider them to be valid life-options. And while this dissent is simply a statement of fact, the ethos of JCoSS demands that each of these contradictory options is taught as equally legitimate. Apart from the obvious fact that children need certainty, a sense of imperative and firm ideas to help them build a meaningful connection to their faith, this type of pluralism is theologically untenable from an Orthodox perspective. In a seminal 1990 essay, later developed into ‘One People’ (Littman 1993), the Chief Rabbi masterfully explains the ‘incoherence of pluralism’ by observing that it ‘presupposes the absence of absolute or normative truth and hence the falsehood of Orthodoxy’. Orthodoxy stakes its being on the existence of some truth that transcends the relativities of time. This is the rock on which pluralism founders… Where truth and falsity are at stake, the idea that both sides of a cont[...]



Rabbi in Israel - War in Gaza

2009-01-06T14:01:59.186+00:00

I am sitting in the National Library at the Hebrew University on the third day of a visit to Israel. I am in here to catch up with young people from my community who are studying at various institutions in Israel, but have dedicated today, the Fast of Tevet, to rest and to some private study. Yet instead, I feel motivated to write a short post about the atmosphere here. In the interests of brevity, here are a few points that have stuck in my mind:Every minyan I have visited is saying a 'Kapitl Tehillim' - a chapter of psalms - after each service, every day, followed by a prayer for the wellbeing of Jews everywhere. For your interest, so far I have been to a shteibl in Meah Shearim, the minyan of a prominent Chassidic Rebbe, a religious Zionist Shul and the minyan at the Hebrew University library.There is a hand-written note pinned to the door of the lift in the building where I am staying, advertising opportunities to send non-perishable food to soldiers in Gaza. Apparently, there are many such notices, as well as those volunteering to deliver the goods.I spoke yesterday to the head of a 'hesder' yeshivah; some of his students have been drafted and he is expecting most of the rest of the yeshivah to be called in the event of a prolonged or expanded conflict. This is the vision of the 'hesder' programme: enabling its students to combine Torah learning with military duty.I also spoke yesterday to a prominent so-called anti-Zionist rabbi who told me that he has encouraged his community to recognise what he called the 'miracle' in the south of Israel: the incredibly few casualties in the wake of 1000s of rocket attacks. He pointed out to me that while many in the Israeli media are observing that this is 'abnormal', that is insufficient - we must see the hand of God in this phenomenon.How meaningful the additional prayers for the fast day seemed this morning; the primary purpose of a fast day is introspection - I found this rather more manageable than usual. These selichot also contain texts that were, perhaps, easier to absorb than usual: references to the siege on the Holy Temple and our hopes that fast days will be transformed into moments of rejoicing.I was particularly startled by the word חמסנו - we have acted aggressively - which appears in the alphabetic confession said on fast days (every day in some communities). והמבין יבין.I am impressed by the sense of calm and normality which seems to exist. Of course, for those with husbands or other family members in the IDF or who live close to the area of hostility, it must be a nerve-wracking time, yet Israelis have learned (sadly) to live normally, despite stress and uncertainty. But most of all, I am struck by the sense of unity and real care and fervent hope expressed by everyone here, of whatever stripe or allegiance within the religious community. I'm pleased that I've been here during this difficult time, as I've learned a lot of good things about Israelis and Israeli society.May the hostilities end soon and the casualties be very few. May we also value the precious unity that this campaign has engendered and realise that it needn't take a war...[...]



Colour Among The Black Hats?

2008-12-13T21:05:30.080+00:00

The students of a prominent Eastern-European rabbi were about to join him to light the Chanukah candles. The rabbi noticed a broom near the window next to his Menorah and asked for it to be removed; apparently, he was concerned that in their zeal to emulate him, his followers would place a broom by the window before lighting their Menorahs too. There is a humorous (and definitely fictitious) end to the story: having visited the rabbi, each of his students went home, placed a broom by the window and then removed it before lighting his candles! A common perception of a significant part of the Orthodox world is that it is narrow, monolithic and stifles individual expression. Detractors often point to the restrictive nature of Jewish law, conformity in dress-style (this criticism is levelled especially at those visible communities with distinctive garb) and the seemingly limited range of educational and other life-choices available to its adherents. There is a sense that the ‘men in black’ all think the same way and live cloned, indistinguishable lives. There is some truth to this: traditional Judaism is predicated on a belief in the historical truth of the Sinaitic revelation and the eternal imperative of halachah. Its followers will create communities that share religious aspirations, educate their children in a certain way and where religious and social needs can be met. This may create a certain narrowness of experience, but devoting one’s life to a complete system of belief and practice involves accepting that some of the wider experiences of an unfettered life must be surrendered to a higher ideal. The intensity of experience that the religious crave may also lead them to form tightly-knit groups with their own exacting standards and social norms and look to charismatic leaders for guidance in their quest for individual perfection and constant communion with the Divine. The Modern Orthodox world has attempted to combine serious commitment to Mitzvah observance and Torah study with aspects of contemporary scholarship, culture and engagement with the modern world. But for the rest of the Orthodox world, must fervour and spiritual ambition lead inexorably to conformity and the crushing of individuality, or is there room for personal expression and creative thought? There will always be those who take refuge in the crowd, preferring to follow rather than to think for themselves; choosing to evade personal responsibility by relying on others. The Orthodox community harbours no fewer such people than any other group, but surely no more. One can certainly observe those within the community who fear individual expression to the extent that they try to suppress it in others. There have been a number of unfortunate high-profile examples of this. They include banning of books that deviate from a narrow ideological line, attempting to limit higher education, abolishing concerts and other forms of entertainment, and restricting access to even the unobjectionable parts of the internet. Is it possible that some feel threatened by the very individual expression that is one of Judaism’s greatest strengths? Yet despite these regrettable attempts to recast Judaism as a system requiring all its adherents to think and behave identically, most Jews are pretty resilient in their individual expression! Despite the superficial appearance of conformity and group behaviour that delegitimizes individuality, one readily finds a vast range of ideas, aspirations, ideologies and modes of religious expression. These differences are evident both between and with Orthodox groups. In traditional Jewish teaching, there is a spectrum of opinion on nearly every subject: the nature of God, Man’s free will, how to u[...]



Heady Reflections On A Sukkot Adventure

2008-12-03T09:31:27.439+00:00

I looked in the mirror this morning and realised that the bump on my head hasn’t quite gone away. It’s only a couple of weeks since Sukkot, so I thought I’d share the story and what I learned from it.On the first day of Chol HaMoed (Thursday) I had planned to join my family for a trip to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew (see here for another article in which I mention Kew Gardens), However, I was exhausted and decided to stay at home, especially as we were hosting a Sukkot party for my community that evening. My wife and children left the house and I decided to rest, so I donned my pyjamas (remember this for later) and dragged my mattress into the Sukkah.After an hour and a half, I was refreshed and ready to continue with my day. However, my attempts to return to the house were thwarted by the discovery that the back door was mysteriously locked from the inside. I could see the keys in the lock and, frustratingly, my cell phone on a table within, but I couldn’t access either.As we leave our front door secured only with a number-lock during the day, I was certain that if I could get into the front garden, I could re-enter the house through the main door. I squelched my way in my socks to the side gate and tried, unsuccessfully, to climb over it, cracking my head in the process. A bit dazed, but not badly hurt, I remembered the ladder at the back of the garden. I intended to climb over the gate and take the ladder with me, but this failed too: while I was sitting on the lintel, the ladder fell back into the garden. I managed to scramble down into the front garden, where, inexplicably, I found the front door locked. I was now standing in the front garden in my socks and pyjamas (remember them?) unable to get into either the house or back into the garden. Contemplating the possibility of a further couple of hours of this situation, I hid behind a car, hoping for some kind of solution.At this point, a neighbour walked past en route to a funeral. He noticed me and insisted that I come and sit in his Sukkah rather than crouch behind the car. I accepted his invitation, which included a drink and the loan of a sweater and a coat. I then realised that I didn’t know my wife’s cell number, so I called my parents to ask for assistance. The conversation began a little like this: ‘hello, I’m sitting in a neighbour’s Sukkah wearing my pyjamas.’ When they stopped laughing, which took quite some time, they were able to put me in contact with my wife, who was at least a hour away.There is a small gap in the fencing between our house and the neighbour’s garden, so foolishly, I resolved to return to my own garden. I was hoping to prise open a window or get in some other way. I squeezed through the gap, returned to my own garden and quickly discovered that I still couldn’t enter the house. I was also unable to get back through the gap in the fence (perhaps I should have realised that my eight-year-old son, the usual gap-squeezer, is rather smaller than me), so I was again stuck in the garden in my pyjamas.I heard a ring at the door, so I climbed the ladder again and peered over. This was one of several conversations I conducted in my pyjamas over the following 45 minutes with passers-by, from my perch nine feet above the ground. The most remarkable was with another neighbour, who approached the house, saw me looking over the gate from a great height and said, with a straight face, ‘hello Rabbi Belovski: the party is this evening, isn’t it?’ When I replied in the affirmative, he thanked me and walked away, making no reference to the fact that I was on a ladder, in my pyjamas, behind the gate, or, most significantly, that my head was bleeding. Perhaps my life is so odd that this event seemed[...]



Statues in Montreux

2008-08-31T22:54:13.143+01:00

A few days ago, I visited Montreux, a small Swiss town by Lake Geneva. It is picturesque, temperate, and while there are plenty of tourist shops, parts of the town are pretty up-market. It was a lovely place to spend a few hours with the family before driving back into the mountains.

Two significant statues on the lake-front are popular with tourists, both of well-known men who lived good parts of their lives in or near Montreux. One is of Charlie Chaplin, the famous actor and film-director, the other is of Freddie Mercury, a leading pop-star of the 70s and 80s. If we can briefly ignore their private lives (the inscription on the statue of Mercury even mentions the ‘discretion’ of the locals), each of them brought much pleasure to millions of people. Presumably, the residents of Montreux feel honoured that Chaplin and Mercury chose to live in their town and recognised this with lake-side memorials.

I was struck by the lack of a statue of Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, a world-famous posek (Jewish legal authority) who lived in Montreux for a large part of his life until his death in 1966. He was a man of astonishing scholarship, who wrote landmark responsa (published as Seridey Aish, by which eponym the author has become known) tackling the most complex and contentious modern issues. The Seridey Aish was at home in the premier yeshivos of pre-war Eastern Europe, yet was a man of his times, facing modern challenges to traditional Judaism robustly, but with a light touch. He fostered a generation of students, including some of the world’s foremost rabbinical leaders, such as the late Gateshead Rov, Rabbi Betzalel Rakow, zt”l, the late Rabbi Joseph Hirsch Dunner zt”l of London, and ylc”t, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, shlit”a, the Ra’avad of the Eidah Charedis in Jerusalem.

Where indeed is the statue of Rabbi Weinberg? Of course, hardly any visitors to Montreux will have heard of him and it is unlikely that a bronze likeness of a rabbi would attract the level of interest from tourists to make its manufacture worthwhile; this apart from the obvious halachic issues raised by making a statue in the first place. I’m sure that the matter was never even considered.

Actually, I’d have been rather upset to have seen a statue of the Seridey Aish along the lake-front in Montreux: Rabbi Weinberg immortalised in the company of an actor and a singer. While the contribution of Rabbi Weinberg is immeasurably more significant than, lehavdil, Messrs Chaplin and Mercury, his immortal responsa, which are still debated and relied-upon by halachists the world over, are a far better testimony to his greatness than a bronze cast.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents



What’s That For? Musar From A Three-year-old

2008-08-31T22:55:19.770+01:00

I am enjoying the privilege of holidaying with my family in the French Alps, so I am far from a minyan. While my children rarely see me davening, especially wearing tefillin, this morning my second daughter Tehilloh (10) and younger son Shmuel Yosef (3) were in the room during Shacharis. When I was laying tefillin, my daughter remarked to my son that one day he would have to don them. As I was putting on the head-tefillin, my son asked her, ‘What’s that for – does it hold his kippah on?’ Then, being three, he suggested that I might need one to hold my neck on and another to keep my leg in place!

Other than causing me some amusement as I was trying to concentrate on davening, Shmuel Yosef left me considering something important. How often do I (or any of us) actually think ‘what’s that for’ when putting on tefillin? It’s so easy for regularly-observed mitzvos to become rote performances, devoid of real meaning. I realised that it’s easy to lay tefillin each day, but harder to experience the ritual as a means of connecting with God: a tool of subjugation of the most powerful human capabilities to the Divine agenda.

Many people say a meditation before donning the tefillin, one which I have just re-read. It reminded me that:

God has commanded us to wear the arm-tefillin to recall the ‘outstretched arm’ (of the Exodus), placed close to the heart to thereby subjugate the desires and thoughts of our hearts to His service; and upon the head, close to my brain, so that the soul that resides in my mind, together with all of my senses and capabilities, are subjugated to His service.

‘What’s that for?’ Three words of powerful musar (ethical guidance) from a three-year-old: God has many agents. It’s a good focal point with which to approach the pre-Rosh HaShanah month of Elul, which starts alarmingly soon.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents




Is It Ethical To ‘Hijack’ An Internet Connection?

2008-08-20T17:10:26.777+01:00

In 2005, a West London man, Gregory Straszkiewicz, was fined £500 and given a 12-month conditional discharge for "hijacking a broadband connection". Using a laptop while sitting in his car, Straszkiewicz had connected to the Internet by piggy-backing on the wireless network of a local resident.Today, many people access the Internet using Wi-Fi wireless technology, which allows a computer to connect to the web via a router, for which service the subscriber pays a monthly fee to an internet service provider (ISP). Although most such connections are secure, and accessible only via a password, some people leave their service unsecured, allowing free Internet access to anyone with a computer to hand. While breaking a security code to access a network is clearly dishonest, how might Jewish law view the unauthorised use of an unsecured connection, as in the case of Gregory Straszkiewicz?At first glance, this looks like a simple application of the principle "one gains without loss to another": there seems to be no apparent loss to the subscriber (who has, after all, left the connection unsecured and therefore open to access by others) through unauthorised use of his wireless connection.However, this may be swiftly discounted, since some financial loss is likely. Many domestic subscribers have capped services: if they download more than a fixed amount of data each month, they are billed extra for it. Additional usage by an outsider may push the monthly total data download over that limit, generating additional cost to the subscriber.Another consideration is bandwidth, the quantity of data that can be transferred per second via the connection. This equates to the speed at which the connection works: the higher the bandwidth rating, the faster the connection. Unauthorised use of the connection will reduce the quality of the subscriber's use, as it will operate more slowly. So the piggy-backer's activities may result in a more expensive and/or slower Internet experience for the subscriber.But even with an uncapped provision, where the piggy-backer uses the connection so little that the subscriber detects no deterioration in service (or the intruder uses it at a time when the subscriber is not online), piggy-backing may still be problematic.The Talmud records a disagreement over whether "borrowing" an item without permission constitutes theft; the Shulchan Aruch rules stringently, which might seem to outlaw piggy-backing. However, the Ritva (Rabbi Yom Tov ben Abraham Ashvilli, died 1330) restricts this ruling to a case where "borrowing" an item could potentially lead to its damage. This clearly excludes piggy-backing, which causes no tangible harm to any material possession of the subscriber.One might argue that when the subscriber leaves a connection unsecured, he is indicating that he doesn't mind if outsiders "borrow" it. This could be supported by the rule allowing one to borrow a tallit left in a public place, even without the owner's permission. However, the Bach (Rabbi Joel Sirkes, died 1640) assumes that this applies only where a mitzvah can be performed, and when the use is occasional; even when the piggy-backing is infrequent, it is unreasonable to suggest that it is a mitzvah!Even if Jewish law theoretically allows piggy-backing, it may still be an act of piety to refrain from it. The Talmud refers to Rabbi Lazar's refusal to take a tiny splinter from a fence for use as a toothpick. Although the loss to the fence's owner was insignificant, and therefore taking the splinter technically permitted, Rabbi Lazar realised that if everyone were to adopt this view, the fence would cease to exist. Similarly, although one piggy-[...]



Copyright And Software Piracy

2008-07-22T12:00:42.299+01:00

In February of last year, at an event in Bucharest attended by Bill Gates of Microsoft, the Romanian president, Mr. Traian Basescu, apparently made an astounding statement. Allegedly, he claimed that software piracy (unauthorised duplication of software, such as Microsoft Office products) helps the younger generation discover computers and that it is an investment in Romania’s friendship with Microsoft! It is unlikely that either Mr. Gates or those software pirates languishing in jail for infringement of copyright were especially sympathetic to Mr. Basescu’s views. ‘Piracy’ of this sort has a long history in Jewish sources. Some 450 years ago Rabbi Meir of Padua published a new version of the Rambam’s halachic work Mishneh Torah. Subsequently, a Venetian nobleman, Marco Antonio Justinian, also published an edition of the Rambam, which his detractors claimed would leave Rabbi Meir with many unsold copies. Rabbi Moshe Isserlis of Cracow (d. 1572) upheld Rabbi Meir’s right to sell his stock before the other edition reached the market; meanwhile, he forbade his followers from buying the Venice printing. In 18th-century Livorno, a dispute arose between the author of an edition of the Mishnah and his printer. After publication, the printer removed the author’s commentary from the plates and reused them! Rabbi Yechezkel Landau of Prague (d. 1793) ruled that the printer must compensate the author for his loss. Legislating rights and responsibilities towards such non-tangible entities as copyright is complex: these landmark rulings were vital steps in the development of halachic attitudes towards intellectual property. We see application of this is legislation nowadays to the problem of software piracy. It is tricky to identify early Jewish sources that discuss title to intangibles - one that establishes a legal right to a concept or other kinds of non-monetary commodities, the development of which required the investment of expertise, resources or time. Such a source could be used to derive a Jewish view of software piracy. The Talmud (Kiddushin 59a) records the case of a hungry pauper who discovers a cake; before he picks it up, however, someone else snatches it. The Rabbis describe the ‘snatcher’ as ‘evil’, since he has exploited the pauper’s efforts; however, he is not a ‘thief’, nor is the case actionable. We see that effort alone (which equates in our study to intellectual property) does not confer title, an idea supported by the maxim, ‘one who quotes a statement in the name of its originator brings redemption to the world,’ (Megillah 15a). Using someone else’s ideas without acknowledgement is not actually a crime, just bad manners. Another permissive view of intellectual property could be based on the rules governing squatters. If a squatter continues to live in a property that is usually rented, he must pay rent after the landlord has served notice. This is because financial benefit accrued by one person, even if there is only a potential loss to another, is claimable. This has ramifications for software piracy. One argument advanced to justify copying is that if one has no intention of buying the product, the manufacturer incurs no loss. If the software is duplicated exclusively for private use and none of the people who use it (or secondary copies made from it) would have bought it (all highly improbable), there might be room for a lenient ruling. Others adopt a less accommodating position. Following the law that someone entrusted with a manuscript may not copy even one letter from it without authorisation[...]



The Pope And Praying In Hebrew

2008-07-08T19:08:40.170+01:00

The London Times reports that the Catholic Church is discussing reintroducing the Latin Mass largely abandoned in the aftermath of Vatican II. See here for details. Apparently, the Pope is writing to every seminary urging them to ensure that priests are trained to conduct the Tridentine Mass, which was replaced in the 1960s by the vernacular liturgy said in most churches today. While before Vatican II, every Catholic Church in the world conducted Mass in Latin, today it is recited in the local language.

Readers may wonder why I’m interested in the Latin Mass, something one can safely assume to be of marginal concern to most Cross-Currents readers! The answer is brief and simple. It helped me to realise how blessed we are to have a Hebrew liturgy, which (with a few minor differences here and there) is the same the world-over. Indeed, among the supportive ultra-conservative remarks appended to the article, are a few thoughtful ones that welcome the return of a universal liturgy, allowing people of every nationality and tongue to celebrate Mass together.

The early 19th-century German-Jewish and later reformers genuinely meant well when they replaced certain Hebrew prayers with vernacular equivalents: they hoped to make them more accessible and comprehensible to their worshippers; presumably, this was successful. However (and this is apart from the theological and halachic issues raised by their versions of the prayers), a great deal more was lost than gained. They underestimated the universal value of Hebrew prayers: the capacity of a Jewish national language, the language of God and the Bible, to unite and inspire people; to erase boundaries between those of different cultures and unify them in devotion.

To be fair, this has now been recognised by some non-Orthodox groups, who have re-introduced greater Hebrew content into their services: I’m sure that they have been greatly enhanced by so doing.

But many Westernised Jews have little or no knowledge of Hebrew – not much has changed since 19th-century Germany (where the vernacular was introduced) in that regard. This is a problem that has a solution – learn Hebrew! It’s easier said than done, but the opportunities available (courses, CDs and internet sites, etc.) have never been greater or the rewards (especially the chance to communicate with the natives on a visit to our own Hebrew-speaking country) more evident. Anyway, there are excellent translations of the Siddur available, each serving a different need, which one can consult throughout the prayer service.

I think that the Pope has this one right: the vernacular alternatives to their (and our) prayers are, in the words of one comment to the article in The Times, ‘improvised’ and ‘fabricated’. Do you agree?

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents




Shmuel Yosef's Opsheren

2008-06-19T18:41:25.106+01:00

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Welcome to Techno-Torah

2008-06-26T16:22:17.258+01:00

A Jewish child is thinking of Moshe about to receive the Torah. Moshe ascends the mountain and God’s hand reaches through the cloud and hands him not tablets of stone, but a laptop, a CD and some Hebrew keyboard stickers! It may seem ridiculous, but these are indeed today’s Torah tools; Shavuot is a perfect opportunity to survey them. A plethora of websites, searchable databases and desk-top publication tools have sprung up to service every Jewish interest. Computer resources for Torah study are among the most advanced of any field and have completely transformed the way that traditional Jewish sources are accessed. Hebrew Desk-top publishing Not many years ago, even typing in Hebrew was a nuisance: one needed to install a special font, type the letters backwards and avoid spilling on to the next line to prevent the text from coming out as gibberish. Next came specialist Hebrew word-processors, such as Dagesh and Davka, which made bi-directional typing easier. While these remain available, standard program suites such as Microsoft Office now come with built-in features that make left-to-right typing straightforward. One need only enable the software (a very simple task) and acquire a keyboard with Hebrew letters or stick some labels on to an existing one and the most powerful publishing, spread-sheet and internet software solutions become available to the bilingual user. Searches can be performed on Hebrew texts and the contents of tables ordered according to the aleph-bet. A mouse-click is all that is required to toggle between typing Hebrew and English characters, which align automatically to produce a seamless document. Torah web-sites There are a vast number of internet sites offering Torah ideas and programmes. As with everything on the web, these vary widely in quality, although many are really excellent. They service every shade of observance and knowledge, from the rudimentary to the most advanced, and deal with matters as diverse as making a Seder and obtaining a get (Jewish divorce). There are fun materials for children, serious monographs for academics and everything in between. One can download guides to every aspect of Jewish life, prayer services, halachic rulings and, even, would you believe, study for the rabbinate. Even those in the most observant sector of the Jewish world have caught on to the power of the web as a tool for Torah dissemination. One will find many Yeshivot, outreach organisations and even Chassidic sects represented: Aish, Breslov and Chabad, for example are known for their extensive use of the internet. There are Hebrew-calendar calculators and sites offering extensive libraries of audio files (shiurim and the like) for listening online or downloading to one’s mp3 player. The extent of these resources is quite mind-blowing. ‘Blogs’ There has been a recent explosion of Torah weblogs or ‘blogs’ – web diaries that opine on anything from Jewish law to political issues and modern challenges. Some ‘blogs’ are simply platforms for peoples’ unhappiness with the world; but one can also easily identify other excellent ‘blogs’ that are thought-provoking and refreshing: many important halachic and contemporary Torah issue have been flagged first by the ‘bloggers’, who are viewed with deep concern by some and with great affection by others. Torah libraries The biggest revolution, however, has been in the d[...]



Haggadah - Two Views (Pesach 5768)

2008-06-26T16:14:23.298+01:00

The very word הגדה (Haggadah) conjures up wonderful memories of Sedarim past, reliving the story of the Exodus with family, friends and students. It’s used to refer colloquially to the booklet -- a compilation of texts and commentaries -- read at the Seder, but the word itself actually contains a wealth of information about the way in which a truly memorable and effective Seder should be conducted. Allow me to share some ideas: According to Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen, the way to discover the core meaning of a Biblical word is to look at the first time it appears in the Torah. In the case of הגדה, the root word first occurs in the story of Adam and Eve. When God addressed Adam after the Sin, we find the following dialogue: The Lord God called to Adam and said to Him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard your voice in the Garden and I was afraid because I am naked, so I hid.’ [God] said, ‘Who told (הגיד) you that you are naked? Have you eaten from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?’ (BeReishis 3:9-11) Rashi explains that God’s question is to be understood in the following way: How do you know? What shame is there is standing naked? (Rashi ad loc.) Before the sin, Adam and Eve wore no clothes but were not ashamed (BeReishis 2:25); however, they subsequently acquired a sense that there was something embarrassing about being naked. It can be seen from this that the word הגיד means to acquire new information. This has an interesting implication for Seder night: the story must be told in a way that is new and exciting for the participants. One cannot fulfil the requirement of הגדה (which is primarily directed at one’s children) by merely reading the text or presenting a stale version of the Exodus. Instead, one must find a new angle on the story each year and create interest and fascination by finding new nuggets of information and by telling it in a refreshing way: one that will grab the imagination and retain peoples’ attention well into the night. Based on ‘Hegioney Halachah’ Haggadah by Rabbi Yitzhok Mirsky The Avney Nezer of Sochaczew pointed out that an accurate reading of the word הגדה can be derived from the Aramaic Onkelos translation of the word: And you shall tell (והגדת) your son on that day as follows: because of this that God did for me in bringing me out from Egypt. (Shemos 13:8) And you shall point out to your son… (Onkelos ad loc.) It seems that the word הגדה means to show or to demonstrate that something is true, rather that merely tell a story. This fits with the Rambam’s version of the text of a key paragraph of the Haggadah: In every generation, one is obliged to see oneself (לראות את עצמו) coming out of Egypt… (standard text) In every generation, one is obliged to show oneself (להראות את עצמו) coming out of Egypt… (Rambam’s text) While the standard text suggests one’s mindset during the Seder, the Rambam’s text (supported by the Targum) regulates one’s behaviour by re-enacting aspects of the Exodus. The Seder should demonstrate the facts of the Exodus and present them in a tangible and accessible way such that leaving Egypt becomes a real, rather than purely intellectual, experience for the participants. In fact, the text of the הגדה itself indicates the use of props to turn the Seder into a demonstration, rather than a purely intellectual process. We may only tell the[...]



Shabbat And The Single Jew - part 2 (Mazal Tov edition)

2008-04-13T22:54:21.011+01:00

In one of my first posts on the theme of dating, I discussed the pros and cons of attending singles events on Shabbat and Yom Tov. I suggested that Shabbat and Yom Tov need to be ends in themselves and not just means to some other end, even the laudable objective of finding a life-partner. Those who use most Shabbatot as dating opportunities risk depleting their spiritual reserves and robbing their religious lives of transformative power. Interested readers will find the original post here.

In that post, I offered a specific (true) example:

A woman approached me recently for advice about attending a Purim party. She knew that there was only a slim chance of meeting someone suitable there, yet she felt that not going would leave her wracked with guilt. She took my advice and didn’t attend, instead devoting the evening to Purim pursuits: she later mentioned that focusing on the day alone enabled her to experience her most meaningful Purim for years.

Well, I am delighted to report that last Purim turned out to be more remarkable for the woman concerned than any of us could possibly have hoped (I am writing this at her request). Very late that Purim evening, she visited my home to help prepare for the Se’udah (Purim banquet) the next day. While I was reading the Megillah for my wife in another room, she got chatting over the kitchen sink to a fellow who was also planning to celebrate with us the next day.

As frequent visitors to our home, they had the opportunity to bump into each other on other occasions, and got to know and like each other, although for certain reasons it was not possible to consider furthering the relationship. Until recently that it, when they began to date in earnest. They became engaged this week and the wedding is likely to be in Israel in the summer. My wife and I are absolutely delighted for both of them and we feel honoured to have been instrumental in bringing them together.

It’s an astonishing story, especially as they only met each other because she decided to hang out in my house instead of going to a Purim party designed to enable singles to meet. God works in mysterious ways, and all of us who know the choson and kallah well know quite how extraordinary their relationship is; it has definitely served to remind us of the inscrutability of the Divine matchmaker.

Be assured that this is not an attempt to bash singles events, even those held on Shabbat and Yom Tov. They have their function and serve to bring people together who may otherwise not have met. Yet we should remember that they are only one of many ways in which God can make matches. We are not party to the Divine plan, but must allow Him to work through us in whatever way possible to bring singles together. Perhaps by simply recognising this fact, we open new vistas for His match-making and thus can become partners with Him in this holy work. May we all be blessed with the foresight and inspiration to grasp every opportunity to help others create new Jewish families.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents



If You Prick Us Do We Not Bleed?

2008-03-09T18:24:58.175+00:00

Some pupils at the Yesodey Hatorah girls’ high school not too far from where I live have attracted UK and international news overage (see, for example, here, here, here and here) over their refusal to answer examination questions about Shakespeare. Apparently, the pupils declined even to write their names on the papers, in protest at Shakespeare’s ‘anti-Semitism’, despite the fact that they had not even been studying ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and that by doing so they would forfeit the entire examination. As a result, the school has fallen drastically in the performance tables (it was, quite remarkably, first in the entire country last year and is now 274th albeit out of over 3000). I should interject a word here about the school system in the UK. Many Jewish schools here have what is known as voluntary aided status, which entitles them to state funding for buildings, general studies teaching and a host of other things, leaving the parents to pick up the tab for the Torah curriculum. Of course, this requires the school to meet government educational standards in all relevant areas. The examination in question was a standard government test on material for which the Shakespeare section is a mandatory part of the syllabus. The principal of Yesodey Hatorah, Rabbi Avrohom Pinter, has been interviewed several times about this curious episode, including on the prestigious BBC Radio 4 ‘Sunday’ religious affairs programme. (You can listen to the interview here: click on the link for ‘Shakespeare and anti-Semitism’). He walks a fine line between supporting the girls in their principled stand, while indicating that he doesn’t really agree with them. It is clearly not the school policy to eschew Shakespeare, since it has bought into a system that requires his works to be taught; at the very least it tolerates its inclusion in the English syllabus and assumes that its students will do likewise. I think that the issue as to whether Shakespeare was an anti-Semite is irrelevant – it has been debated for centuries. My own opinion (to the extent that I know enough about the subject to have an informed one) coincides with Rabbi Pinter’s. While the portrayal of Shylock has anti-Semitic overtones, there are also very humane, sensitive (dare one say philo-Semitic?) aspects of his character. The bard lived in an age when anti-Semitic sentiments were common; actually it is likely that he was writing with little first-hand knowledge of Jews, as he lived at the end of the 16th century, long after the expulsion in 1290 and some while before the resettlement in the mid-17th century. As such, I am not inordinately troubled by Shakespeare’s alleged anti-Semitism. However, two other aspects of this incident have given me cause for thought. First, even if Shakespeare was an anti-Semite, should this influence whether his works ought to be taught in Jewish schools? Second, should a school support pupils’ principled objection to a syllabus item even if by doing so it significantly damages the school and its reputation? Tacking the second question first, one could argue that the students (and their parents, who are reported as supporting them in this case) are bound by some kind of understanding with the school, in which they have agreed to engage fully in the stated programme of study. They ‘breach’ this ‘contract’ if they do not participate in the examinations. I don’t accept this argument,[...]



Must Your Online Shop Shut On Shabbat?

2008-03-09T18:50:40.285+00:00

Widespread internet use has transformed the way many businesses operate. It is possible to use the internet to sell clothes, household appliances, books, or almost anything. And as websites are ‘open’ around the clock, this raises new issues for Jewish law: since commerce is forbidden on Shabbat, must one close down one’s internet site on Friday afternoon to prevent purchases being made? Another related ‘hot’ topic is the issue of on-line auctions. May one bid for an item if the auction will end on Shabbat? What if the system bids automatically on Shabbat (when you are outbid in an on-line auction, such as eBay, but have indicated that you will pay more than the current highest bid by putting in a maximum bid before Shabbat)? The core issue is whether a transaction that takes place with no human involvement on Shabbat, even without one’s knowledge, remains prohibited by the laws of Shabbat. By way of introduction, many authorities assert that the entire corpus of laws regulating commerce on Shabbat is of rabbinical, rather than Biblical origin. While this means they must be taken very seriously (and observed without compromise), in a case of uncertainty, the final ruling may allow for some flexibility. Some 200 years ago, Rabbi Akiva Eiger considered the permissibility of selling an object when the money is handed over on Friday but remains the property of the vendor until Shabbat. Even though the acquisition happens automatically on Shabbat, he adopts the stringent position and prohibits this. This point is qualified by Rabbi Zvi Pesah Frank, who asserts that when the entire process occurs on Shabbat, both the vendor and the purchaser transgress, but when the purchase is started before Shabbat and concludes on Shabbat, only the purchaser transgresses. While the owner of a website might not actually sin by ‘trading’ on Shabbat, he or she may be enticing a potential (Jewish) purchaser to sin! According to this view, it would be difficult to allow a website to remain open on Shabbat, since any purchase made would result in transfer of title to the goods on Shabbat. However, if the vendor’s website can be designed not to actually process the charge on Shabbat, but instead wait to receive payment until the goods are available and ready for shipping, there may be no halachic problem. Based on this ruling, Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, senior halakhic authority of the American Orthodox Union, is quoted as prohibiting ‘proxy’ bidding for an item when the internet auction ends on Shabbat. However, his ruling seems to ignore the fact that when the sale ends, all that actually happens is that one becomes legally committed to buying the item; until one pays for it after Shabbat, there is no actual transfer of title. This should remain permitted even according to Rabbi Eiger, since no acquisition actually happens on Shabbat. Offering a fresh approach, Dayan Yitzhak Weiss considered the permissibility of a Jew trading on Shabbat using a vending machine. As the device is left in a public place and is freely accessible to passersby, it provides an excellent precedent for its ether-equivalent, the e-commerce website. After an extensive discussion of the issues, Dayan Weiss permits the use of vending machines when the following conditions are met: The owner of the machine must declare that the proceeds of the sales won’t be acquired until after Shabbat (to avoid the [...]



So... Can You Write God’s Name On A Computer?

2008-03-09T18:45:43.646+00:00

Does Jewish law allow one to erase God’s name from a computer disk or monitor? When I first encountered this question, I assumed that it was a joke. What if the response were negative? Would one have to bury old computer disks? What if God’s name appears on a computer monitor? Would one then have to avoid deleting it and instead of switching off, hope for a power cut? In a passage dealing with the requirement to eradicate idolatry from Israel, the Torah urges us to ‘eliminate their name from that place’. (Devarim 12:3). This is followed by the warning, ‘do not do so to the Lord your God’. (ibid. 4) The Talmud and the legal codes understand this to constitute the Biblical prohibition of erasing any of God’s names (Sifri Devarim 61). This has many applications: most notably the prohibition of destroying a text in which God’s name appears. In religious circles, people avoid writing God’s name in full (at least in its original Hebrew form) so that they can later dispose of the text. And every Jewish community has a ‘genizah’, where items containing God’s name, such as worn-out Mezuzot and Siddurim are stored until they can be buried. But would Jewish law allow one to erase God’s name when it appears in a readable or audible form, although not actually written or printed? May one, for example, dispose of a tape recording of God’s name, or record something over it? What is the status of text stored digitally: for example, a word-processing document saved on a computer’s hard drive? This question was first addressed in reference to the forerunner of the gramophone – the phonograph, a device in which a needle detected grooves on a revolving foil or paper sheet, amplifying them into sound. In a landmark responsum, Rabbi Z.P. Frank ruled that the markings on the paper are not actually letters (as they can’t be read or even seen) and so the prohibition of erasing God’s name does not apply to smoothing out the paper. He notes that the great Rabbi Shmuel Salant only prohibited this because he didn’t understand how the phonograph worked! Rabbi Moshe Feinstein takes a slightly more circumspect approach to tape recordings: in a responsum dated 1963, he acknowledges that there are no real letters and hence no clear prohibition of erasing the tape, yet he feels that it is improper to erase the tape directly. He recommends an indirect approach (presumably recording something over the name of God, rather than merely wiping the tape blank). While there are more stringent views, it seems that these rulings can also be applied to magnetic storage devices such as computer hard drives, which may be erased irrespective of their content. However, how would halachah address God’s name displayed on a computer monitor, when one can actually read the letters? In the case of a CRT monitor, electrons are fired at the inside of the screen, forming light patterns that can be seen from the front. They are constantly refreshed, but at a rate that the human eye cannot detect: in reality, therefore, each letter is formed from a series of pixels (dots) each of which only appears on the screen for a moment before being replaced by another. Rabbi S.Z. Auerbach is quoted as ruling that since no complete letter ever actually exists, this does not constitute ‘writing’; it follows that deleting God’s name from this type of screen cannot b[...]