Eglah Arufa Reexamined

by Rabbi David Fried

The end of Parshat Shoftim details the procedure of the eglah arufah, the ritual that must be performed when a person is found murdered and the identity of the murderer is not known.  First they measure which city is closest to the scene of the crime.  The elders of that city then slaughter a calf and wash their hands, and proclaim, “Our hands did not spill this blood, nor did our eyes see.”  Rashi (Deut. 21:7) quotes the Mishnah (Sota 45b), which states, “Would anyone suspect that the elders of the court are murders?  Rather, what they mean is, “We did not see him and send him off without food and escort.”  The implication is that had they not taken care of him properly, and he thereby came to be endangered, they would bear some culpability for the murder, even though they did not commit it.  When tragedies have befallen us, this Mishnah has often been used (properly) to demand introspection of ourselves and our communities to see if we really did everything we could to prevent it, as Chazal say (Brachot 5a), “One who experiences suffering should examine his deeds.”  Did we spend enough time teaching our children the Torah values of loving our fellow Jew and seeing all of humanity as created in the image of God?  Did we provide enough love and support to our loved ones as they were going through physical or mental illnesses?  These are legitimate questions for communities to ask themselves following a tragedy.  This Mishnah has also often been used (improperly) to point fingers at other communities and assign them collective guilt for their tragedies.

While the Mishnah’s point demanding personal and communal introspection in the face of tragedy is certainly true and worthwhile, I would like to suggest a different peshat.  To answer the Mishnah’s question of who would suspect that the elders of the court are murderers, I would suggest the answer is that they themselves would.  It is a natural response of good people who experience tragedy to feel responsible for it.  While a certain amount of introspection is healthy, becoming consumed by guilt is not.  It is not healthy for a child whose parents are divorcing to think, “If only I had acted better, my parents would still love each other.”  Likewise, it is not healthy for a parent whose child has been arrested to think, “If only I had been a better parent, my child would not have turned out this way,” or a husband or wife whose spouse has died young of a severe illness to think, “If only I had spent more time caring for them, they would have lived longer.”  We need to be able to accept that tragedy happens in the world, people are responsible for their own actions, and we cannot control it.  Accepting this is not easy, and many who go through such tragedies may need therapy to help them reach that point.  It is for this reason, I would like to suggest, that the Torah ritualizes a way for the elders of the city to be able to symbolically wash their hands of the matter, and proclaim to themselves, “Our hands did not spill this blood.”

A Tale of Two Batei Midrash: YCT and Philly

A tale of two Batei Midrash; YCT and Philly

by Rabbi Nissan Antine

Last month I had the opportunity of learning in two batei midrash that couldn’t be further from each other on the orthodox spectrum. On Monday, I spent the morning at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (where I earned my semicha). The kol torah (sound of Torah) was amazing as I was able to overhear a number of students trying to master the intricacies of Hilchot Shabbat so that they could effectively lead their congregation in greater observance of Shabbat. On the next day, Tuesday, as I was driving home from NY, I decided to stop at my other Alma Mater, The Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia (otherwise known as Philly) where I studied for 4 years of High School around 20 years ago. I didn’t have a meeting with any of the rebeim or roshei hayeshiva. I just wanted to sit in the Beis Medrash that had nurtured and sustained me when I first started learning.  I was privileged to overhear a number of chavrusos learning the first perek of Gittin and dealing with some of the lomdos of “Hamevi Get.”

While I was in Philly, I had a thought which seems so basic but yet in reality is so difficult. “Why can’t we all just get along?” This was not a naive  perception that we are exactly the same. Believe me when I say that I know that there are differences and it is precisely some of those differences that motivated me to leave the world of Philly and find YCT. But on that Tuesday morning, when I saw Talmidim of Philly and YCT within 24 hours learning the same Talmud with such intensity, reverence and commitment; I wondered why can’t we all see what unites us? While there are differences on the margins, both communities share a commitment to have Torah impact their lives in the deepest possible ways. Both communities have a strong desire, even if we have different styles, to help make Torah more meaningful to countless Jews who are disengaged.

I would humbly like to make one suggestion that I think would help heal our community. Leaders from open and modern Orthodoxy should commit to not talk negatively about our friends to the right of us. This does not mean that we don’t have differences and that the differences aren’t important. But how does our community (those associated with more open and modern Orthodoxy) benefit from hearing negative statements about the other. We should be working on ourselves and when we point to the Yeshivish community we should look to its many positive traits that we can learn from.

I would request and hope that the leadership of the centrist and yeshivahs communities would make a similar commitment. I hope that if we can start to talk about each other in more positive ways then ultimately we will help heal our communities which is really one community.

Two Days With the Maharats

Two Days with the Maharats

by Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold

As a Maharat out in the field, my days are filled with the work of spiritual leadership, from the mundane to the sublime. On any given day, I am part of internal rhythm of the daily minyan or singing and chatting with our preschoolers; I am teaching my weekly Tanach class or preparing a drasha; I am visiting the hospital or attending a programming committee meeting; and throughout, I am sharing life cycle moments of joy and of bereavement.

Last week, I stepped away from that work for two days of celebration and reflection with my fellow Maharats. Rejoicing with the newest graduates of Yeshivat Maharat, as they received their smikha (ordination) was a moving experience. As each graduate was met with the words “Toreh toreh”, signifying that she was stepping up as a full member of the Orthodox clergy, the joy and exhilaration in the room were palpable. Each graduate approached the podium and told how she intended to use her smikha to impact the Jewish people. The words that were heard repeatedly were “humbly” and “responsibility” and “gratitude”. We all felt the grandeur of the moment, as these sensitive scholars and teachers were finally given access to an arena that had been previously closed to them.

The next day was a time for reflection. The Maharat alumni, who graduated in the first two years of the institution, gathered for our first alumni professional development day. We reflected on the constantly evolving nature of women in Orthodox religious leadership. We marveled at the comfort our communities have begun to feel with us at the helm. We acknowledged the complexity of the roles we play in people’s lives. We reminded ourselves that while the media prefers to sensationalize questions of titles and religious politics, we internally focus more on our function – serving the Jewish people to the best of our abilities, and maximizing the impact we can have on the women and men who seek our guidance and our Torah. We reflected on the difficulties of finding a balance between demanding jobs and growing families. This one can be particularly tricky for us. While we know that our struggles are similar to those of women in other career fields, somehow our challenges also feel unique. We laughed together at some of the absurdities of forging new ground and were amazed at some of the incredible successes we have experienced in our work.

In those two days, I was moved to tears for the joy and the struggle. In those two days, I felt a newfound gratitude for teachers, for colleagues, and for a supportive spouse. In those two days, I refocused on the work at hand. I bring that new sense of focus back to the daily minyan, the preschool, the hospital, the classroom, the meetings, and the lives of my congregants.

Korach and the Challenges of Rabbinic Leadership

Korach and the Challenges of Rabbinic Leadership

by Rabbi David Fried

Sefer Bemidbar is filled with the rebellions of the Jewish people in the desert. However, there is something strikingly different about the rebellion of Korach. For the first time, we see Jews referring to themselves as kahal hashem and am hashem. In all the previous rebellions, they failed to internalize that idea. They rejected the covenant with God and wanted to return to Egypt. Korach’s rebellion is not against God, but against the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu. While… still wrong, a profound change has clearly occurred in the mindset of the Jewish people to even be susceptible to this sort of rebellion.

On another level, though, there is something far more insidious about Korach’s rebellion. On a certain level, it is easy to reject leaders who are openly calling for us to abandon the values we hold most dear. It is the leaders who play into those values, who present themselves as a more authentic version of those values (while secretly doing it for their own selfish ends) who can be most dangerous because their rhetoric entices us and it is harder to notice they are doing anything wrong. How then are we supposed to detect this kind of rebellion? Based on Parshat Korach, I would suggest two answers.

1) Datan and Aviram blame Moshe for the fact that they have not entered the land of Israel yet. Any leader who seeks to enable us to avoid personal responsibility and is targeting another person or group to blame for our problems should not be trusted.

2) Pirkei Avot 5:20 states, “Any argument which is for the sake of Heaven will ultimately last. Any argument which is not for the sake of Heaven will ultimately not last.”

The use of the statement and its inverse makes the connection biconditional, and we may legitimately imply the converses as well. Any argument which does not last, was not for the sake of Heaven.

If your goal in an argument is to silence your opponent (and I don’t mean merely through physical or emotional coercion, but even through to force of a good and compelling argument), if you would rather they just agree with you so you can go home and stop arguing, then your argument is not for the sake of Heaven. If your argument is for the sake of Heaven, you want to hear the other side, you want the act of arguing to bring out the weaknesses in both sides and ultimately strengthen both.

That same Mishnah in Pirkei Avot mentions Korach and his assembly as the paradigm of those who were arguing not for the sake of Heaven. As I just demonstrated, one who is arguing for the sake of Heaven wants to see the argument last and endure, whereas one who is not arguing for the sake of Heaven wants the argument to end as soon as possible. We can see this with Korach as well. Moshe Rabbeinu invited Korach and his assembly to come demonstrate that they were more fit to serve in the Mishkan than Aharon and his sons. A good leader is never afraid of a debate, of hearing the arguments of their opponent. Their primary concern is not their own leadership, but the wellbeing of those they lead, and therefore are always open to new ideas. Korach and his assembly, on the other hand, refused to participate in this debate. When leaders refuse to engage the other side in debate, no matter what their stated reason (like not wanting to legitimize the other position by debating it, or the claim that the other side is not acting for the sake of Heaven and therefore it would be wrong to engage them), that is the dead-giveaway that they are not motivated for the sake of Heaven.

The Crisis of Israeli American Jews

The Crisis of Israeli American Jews

by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

Over half a million Israelis are now living in countries other than Israel.   The majority of these have settled in the United States and Canada for the long haul, teaching at universities, running business and becoming entrepreneurs.  The vast majority identifies as secular and sends their children to public schools.  These children, though they maintain a vague Israeli identity via their parents, call their current country of residence home.

Far removed from Israel which offered them Jewish identity by osmosis, their Jewish life and especially their children’s’ Jewish life and culture is in grave danger.   Instead of absorbing Chanukah in the street, they have only Christmas to bombard them at holiday time.  Instead of kiddush on Friday night and a national ambiance of Sabbath on Shabbat they have soccer practice and the myriad extracurricular activities of the average American child and teen.  When the High Holidays come, whereas in Israel they might have stepped into a synagogue or community center for prayer, they now must contend with the notion of High Holiday tickets for the first time, something those grown up in the Israeli zeitgeist find bizarre, as strange and as foreign to them as paying for synagogue membership.

Diaspora Jews, no matter their denomination, retain their Jewish identity by forming religious communities around synagogues.  Synagogues provide American Jews with a religious connection, communal identity and association, rudimentary education and a vital sense of Jewish peoplehood.  Most secular Israelis did not attend synagogues in Israel and many may never have been in a synagogue.  They have been acculturated to see religion as dangerous, political, and coercive.  They do not easily connect to non-Orthodox synagogues, because, as the cliché goes, for secular Israelis the synagogue they do not attend is Orthodox.  Yet, ironically, secular Israelis are much easier to engage in Judaism than disconnected American Jews.

Recently I met with two Israeli women who had moved with their families a decade ago to St. Louis for their husbands’ jobs.   Having heard from other Israelis that I was welcoming and could be trusted, they came to talk to me about creating a class of Israeli women to study Jewish thought.  They explained that they are secular, do not belong to any congregation, and that their children attend public school and receive no regular formal or informal Jewish education beyond the kiddush they recite at home as a family on Friday night.  Toward the end of the conversation they each proceeded to pull out of their handbags a Hebrew copy of tihilim, psalms, which they periodically recite.   I told them there is not a secular Jew in the United States, not belonging to a synagogue or providing her children any formal Jewish education, who carries a tihilim.

The irony of all this is foreboding.  It tells of a population that is so connected in some ways to its Jewish roots and memories and yet unfortunately whose children will assimilate into American culture more quickly than the children of immigrants who came here a century ago.

Israelis who have moved here stay connected to their cultural heritage through their social connection to fellow Israelis and by gathering for events such as Israel Independence Day and Chanukah parties.  They hope their children will avoid intermarrying and assimilating, but in reality Israeli culture will be difficult to maintain for this next generation and will not be enough to act as a bulwark against assimilation. In the United States it is religious community, of whatever denomination, that keeps one Jewish.  Secular Israeli culture can not do this.   There is little substitute outside of Israel for synagogues as the places in which Jewish religious community is built, educated and fostered.

Several years ago an Israeli came to my synagogue, Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis, Missouri, and told us that there was something even secular Israelis want from the Jewish community: a school to teach their children to read and write the Hebrew language.  Their children speak some Hebrew they have learned at home but they do not learn to read and write Hebrew.   Realizing this was an opportunity to engage secular Israelis on their own terms, and perhaps eventually to engage them in the Jewish community and religious life we opened a school, “Shelanu”, to teach Israeli expatriate children of elementary school age to read and write Hebrew.   We staffed the school with Israeli language teachers and a volunteer principal.  I used the holidays as opportunities to teach these children about Jewish life and culture because the holidays are something that their secular parents see as national rather than religious.

Over the first few years family after family told me they had never expected to feel at home in a synagogue with religious people.  They expected coercion, derision, and alienation.  Instead,  they were surprised to feel embraced and at home in a Jewish religious environment.  Indeed Bais Abraham is particularly suited for them, as an Orthodox congregation that has consciously removed as many barriers to entry as possible.   It boasts a most diverse congregational makeup of religious from birth, Jews raised secular, converts, intermarrieds and people on a spiritual journey.

Two years into the school’s existence the Israeli families began to trust us and to realize the importance of some Jewish education to the extent that they asked for an extra hour of study each week for their children to learn about Judaism.    I saw this as the schools’ true raison d’etre.   The Shelanu Hebrew School now acts as a foundation upon which we provide holiday parties, free High Holiday seats, Shabbat meals and classes for Israeli families.

I am convinced that opening up Jewish Community Centers and other culturally Jewish institutions to Israelis will never be enough to retain Israelis abroad as part of the Jewish people.   It will take congregations that are open and welcoming in nature, many of them, learning about Israeli culture and the subtleties of engaging this population and meeting their needs, to retain their children as part of the Jewish people and engage them in Jewish life.  It requires Israeli shelichim who both understand Israeli culture and appreciate a synagogue’s religious life and who can be part of the synagogue and school and serve as a bridge to local Israelis.

Time is running out.  We now face not much more than a 20 year window before the children of these Jews assimilate en masse.   It happens as they finish high school and go to college in America with almost no Jewish religious knowledge, identity or practice.  There is little except the desire of their parents and a fuzzy connection to a land across the ocean to stop them from marrying the gentile they have met on campus.  They have less to hold them back than their Reform or Conservative American born, synagogue connected, counterparts.

We can make a big difference in retaining these Jews and their children as part of the Jewish people and Jewish religion.  It is much easier than engaging a secular American Jew since Israelis all have much stronger Jewish identity and memory.   They are in more danger yet are more readily engaged.   If we do not wake up quickly and put resources toward this challenge, equipping synagogues across the country to engage Israelis and to understand their unique culture and needs, it will soon be too late.

A Change of Heart: Rav Kook’s Religious Zionism

A Change of Heart: Rav Kook’s Religious Zionism

by Rav Yosef Kanefsky

In 1897 , just after the meeting of the First Zionist Congress in Basel , Switzerland, a young Latvian rabbi, who had heard  – somewhat, but not completely mistakenly – that the conference had declared that “Zionism has nothing to do with religion”, published the following reaction:

The Congress’ decree that that Zionism has nothing to do with religion is harsher than the decrees of Pharaoh or Haman. This abomination, this perverse statement is the poison within Zionism that is destroying it and turning it into an empty vessel… Until this deposit of error is expunged from their hearts, Zionism will languish lifeless, incapable of protecting itself from rot and destruction, so that that the worthless will triumph. It shall putrefy and be covered with worms.

In 1902, this same young Latvian rabbi, expressing his feelings about secular Zionists, wrote that:

The inner difference between those who are faithful to the Torah and those who have abandoned it, is greater than the difference between Israel and the nations…..Those who observe the Torah do not and cannot recognize any national solidarity with those who have washed their hands of the soul of the people and the source of its very life… [they are] heretics….who have cast off the yoke of Torah and faith….

Lots of us would be surprised to hear that this young Latvian Rabbi was none other than Rabbi Abraham  Isaac HaKohen Kook. The very same Rav Kook who, now as chief rabbi of Yaffo in 1904, boldly chose to  eulogize Theodor Herzl, describing Herzl, yes, as a flawed and incomplete leader, but as a Messianic figure nonetheless. And the very same Rav Kook who, as the decades proceeded, came to embrace socialist labor Zionists as indispensible partners in the Redemptive process, as people whose strength and whose chutzpah filled a historical breach, whose boldness broke through the paralysis of  Sages who did not know how to arouse the people to bold, redemptive action. “Fiery spirits”, Rav Kook called them, “who refused to be bound by any limitation.” Jews who, despite being terribly spiritually misguided, nonetheless managed to  fix  what thousands of years of exile had shattered. The very same Rav Kook who – although it was clear that he was hoping for something more like Yeshiva University – joined Haim Weizman, Haim Nachman Bilaik, and Ahad Ha’am among others to formally mark the opening of the Hebrew University. The very same Rav Kook who even found value in the atheism of  the many “freethinkers” among the secular Zionists.  “Atheism cleanses the dross of ‘petty religion,’ the narrowness and provincialism of established Jewish religion that frequently becomes arrogant, rigid and judgmental. We need these people, these atheists, whom we seek to befriend.”

As the great scholar Dr. Aviezer Ravitsky wrote, Rav Kook underwent a dramatic transformation after emigrating to Eretz Yisrael in 1904, from holding a worldview in which the messianic vision was being undermined by the faithless, to developing a more nuanced view of how redemption works,  one which  drew him, emotionally and religiously, toward those very same people. As Dr. Ravitsky carefully documents, Rav Kook slowly developed and adopted a theory of progress and of history that enabled him to dramatically change his views. Its foundation was in the intellectual zeitgeist of the time, which held that humanity was moving inexorably toward greater and greater perfection. “As the human spirit develops,  Rav Kook wrote –  man’s intellect and volition aspire more and more to the absolute good, which is the Divine good.” Upon this foundation  Rav Kook laid a Hegelian view of history, in which progress is never a linear process, but a dialectical one, in which forces and counter-forces play off each other,  ultimately sorting themselves out, and propelling humanity forward.  Rav Kook came to believe  that the Jewish historical march forward  – beginning with the revolutionary break from exile  –  would similarly be characterized by a dialectical rhythm, as antithetical thrusts animated the arena, thrusts which would ultimately form a greater harmony. He was certain that the return to Zion was a critical leap in our unfolding messianic vision, and that all of the people who were making it happen – including those who held ideas that were contrary to the ultimate messianic realization – had a role to play in that unfolding. And that in the end, when the Jewish State was both materially strong, and religiously devout, everyone would  be able to look back and see how all the pieces fit together.

Each year, when we mark Yom Ha’atzmaut, we celebrate so many different things, both Divine miracles and human accomplishments. And we should be sure to include in our celebration the vision of Rav Kook, no matter how, unrealistic, or utopian it may have been. For although Medinat Yisrael isn’t –  and couldn’t realistically have become – what he had hoped for,  the ideas that he originated:

  • that Jews can and should recognize the value and contributions of Zionists who sit across the aisle from them,
  • that the Jewish State needs to go beyond simple nationalism, and possess a higher purpose in order to be a fulfillment of the Zionist dream
  • and that Religious Zionism is very much about crossing boundaries and fostering unity within the nation,

are ideas that are vital to Israel’s health and prosperity, and security in the decades to come. They are ideas to be celebrated as part of the epic Zionist story, ideas for the coming stages of the Zionist endeavor, ideas about which we say, תקותינו עוד לא אבדה”, “Our hope is never lost”…

Can We Redeem the Halakhah?

Can We Redeem the Halakhah?

Eugene Korn

“Do you think that is fair to gentiles?” responded Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik to the stunned Orthodox Union officer. Rav Soloveitchik had asked him what he was working on recently, to which the lawyer responded: “I am preparing legislation to ensure that Sabbath observers cannot be penalized for missing work on Shabbat.” Instead of the expected encouraging pat on the back, Rav Soloveitchik shocked him into thinking further. Of course Rav Soloveitchik was in favor of the Sabbath legislation, but he wanted his followers to be ever mindful of the critical importance of fairness and concern for others—particularly those distant from Orthodoxy. His response was a lesson in moral pedagogy, not an expression of legal disagreement.

In his essay “Catharsis” Rav Soloveitchik taught that every aspect of human life requires redemption. All of us fail at times, and our systems too are fallible and prone to corruption. Rav Soloveitchik astutely pointed out that even religion needs cleansing, for without it “our relationship with God may become self-righteous, insensitive and even destructive.” For Rav Soloveitchik, sober and moderate halakhah was the cathartic instrument capable of purging human experience from coarseness.

Rav Soloveitchik’s conception of Jewish life was deeply rooted in ethical commitment. Throughout his lectures on Avraham (published as “Abraham’s Journey”), Rav Soloveitchik described Avraham as the model Jew because “he substituted the ethical life for the immoral one” and “possessed an ethical system to be carried out and implemented.” Teaching tzedakah and mishpat to the world was the covenantal mission God gave to Abraham, and commanded him to bequeath it to us, his descendants (Gen. 18:19).  How else could Avraham audaciously challenge God on moral grounds: “Will the Judge of all the earth, not do justice?”

Like Avraham, Rav Soloveitchik was resolutely dedicated to fairness and the sanctity of human life, as the opening dialogue indicates. His commitment to ethical integrity also moved him to demand that the Israeli government investigate the role the Israel Defense Forces in the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982.  Although Israel was only indirectly involved in the mass killing, Rav Soloveitchik called the head of the National Religious Party, Dr. Yosef Burg, and told him that he could not continue as President of the Religious Zionist of America if the National Religious Party (Mafdal) did not vote in favor of the investigation.

Our contemporary experience bears out Rav Soloveitchik’s insight into the need for catharsis in religious life. We have all witnessed the recent scandals of religious organizations, Jewish (and Christian) clergy, and Orthodox public figures exposed as frauds rather than honest servants of God. Today it is commonplace to hear of religious leaders who, out of self-righteous zeal, are insensitive to those with whom they disagree. And religious extremism is now destructive on a global scale. Clearly these public religious phenomena require purging.

But catharsis also applies to each one of us: When I am honest with myself, deep down I know that I too need purification.

Today we stand in a different place, 50 years after Rav Soloveitchik wrote about catharsis. Yet his wisdom has new meaning for us: Too often it is the halakhic process itself that has lost its moral bearings and its commitment to ethical integrity. It too needs catharsis. I refer not to situations where halakhic Jews are aware of failing to live up to ethical standards, but where halakhic opinions themselves lack moral concern.

Here are three examples:

In 2010 the Rabbinical Council of America published a report rejecting brain death as a criterion for halakhic death, and thus forbade removing a heart or lung from a brain dead person. But while the RCA rabbis prohibited donating such an organ, they permitted receiving one: “All [halakhic authorities] agreed that even if an organ was removed באיסור [illicitly], it still may be used. There is no merit in arguments that various talmidei hakhamim have supported organ donation since we find them permitting receiving such organs” (p. 47).

In other words, these halakhic authorities ruled that Jews may receive lungs and hearts but are forbidden to donate them to others. This “taking but not giving” violates the most fundamental principles of equity, justice and valid ethical reasoning. The entire medical community sees this as a self-serving and morally unjustifiable policy, as do ethicists and international transplant organizations. Were this policy to be adopted by all Jews, only gentiles would donate, and de facto, Jews would benefit from gentile organ donations but gentiles would never benefit from Jewish organs. “Do you think this is fair to gentiles?” Sadly, many rabbis espousing this position see themselves as Rav Soloveitchik’s disciples.

Primarily for cultural reasons Israelis are reluctant to donate organs despite their government’s urgings. Israelis are in dire need of vital organs and because Israel demands so many more organs than it donates, the Jewish State is viewed as a parasite nation by European medical professionals. As a result, the European Network of Organ Sharing no longer provides vital organs to Israel. Were this psaq to become the Israeli standard, according to the Israeli Health Ministry statistics more than 100 Israelis would die every year waiting for an organ transplant. In other words, the psaq seems oblivious to elemental fairness and the significant loss of life it would cause. The RCA wisely seems to have decided against further promoting the report, but there is no indication that the poseqim behind it have disavowed their ethically unjustifiable position.     

Second, because of the increase in asymmetrical warfare around the world and Israel’s frequent need to go to war, there is now a robust discussion inside and outside of Israel about military ethical standards: How can an army fight morally yet effectively? What are the moral rules for engaging the enemy? The heart of just war thinking is “the principle of distinction,” i.e. a moral army must distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. While intentionally killing enemy combatants is justified (indeed necessary), it is not justified to target innocent non-combatants.

This principle of distinction is encoded in the IDF’s “purity of arms” doctrine (“tohar ha-nesheq”) and it is this principle more than anything else that distinguishes the IDF’s moral military tactics from those of Hamas and other terrorists. Yet shockingly, the principle of distinction is either overlooked or rejected by many contemporary poseqim. In a recent survey of halakhic opinions  (  – Vol. 17, No. 18; “Halachic Perspectives on Civilian Casualties” – Part 3), the rabbinic surveyor concluded that there was only one contemporary poseq, R. Aharon Lichtenstein, who demands that Jews consider enemy civilian casualties when fighting according to halakhic standards, and as a lone exception he does not express accepted halakhah. The rabbinic consensus and normative halakhah is consistent with the opinion of R. Dov Lior who believes that “according to the Torah worldview there is no concept of innocent civilians in an enemy population.” The survey also favorably cites one halakhic scholar who claims that, “there is no halakhic source that takes cognizance of the likelihood of causing civilian casualties in the course of hostilities.” Yet if a Jew is permitted to intentionally kill a helpless infant or an elderly infirmed grandmother in the enemy camp, a fortiori there is no restraint whatsoever governing how a halakhic Jew may treat a non-threatening civilian in wartime.

Third, as recently as November 2014 a Yeshiva University Rosh Yeshiva spoke on the Torah approach to homosexuality, citing a therapist without professional credentials and recommending reparative (i.e. change) therapy for homosexuals. Far from being alone, this Rosh Yeshiva was echoing a “Declaration on the Torah Approach to Homosexuality,” ( signed by 223 Orthodox rabbis—mostly haredi but also some prominent YU and RCA rabbis. The declaration advocates “therapy and teshuvah,” where it is clear that the therapy referred to aims to change a homosexual’s orientation to “a natural gender identity.” Yet the American Psychological Association and medical professionals have concluded that there is no reliable data to indicate that such therapy is effective, and worse still, there is significant evidence that such therapy can cause serious harm to the patient. Because of this risk, a number of states have banned change therapy for minors. In sum, the continued rabbinic advocacy of conversion therapy rejects scientific judgment and neglects the welfare of individual homosexuals in order to sustain a traditional ideology. We all have an ethical responsibility to protect homosexual persons created b’Tzelem Elokim and hence a halakhic policy promoting change therapy is neither scientific, nor compassionate nor morally justifiable.

Some halakhic authorities see the logical independence of halakhah as justifying their amoral approach to halakhic reasoning. Yet as these cases demonstrate, what begins as a neutral approach ends up in immoral halakhic conclusions.

Of course there are also points of light. There are other halakhic voices, ones committed to moral integrity and keenly sensitive to ethical standards. These minority voices insist on the moral tenability of any halakhic approach to organ donation (  In addition to R. Lichtenstein, Netziv and R. Goren also insisted that Jews may not wage war against civilians. And other Orthodox rabbis stress moral sensitivity toward homosexuals, urging concern for their physical and mental welfare, cite the widespread consensus of the ineffectiveness and potential damage of “change therapies” and affirm the religious right to reject such therapies (

These latter halakhic opinions carry less authority in the larger Orthodox community, yet there is no doubt that they are ones who are redeeming halakhah and restoring moral credibility to Orthodoxy.

All of us need to strengthen these moral voices and recover the authentic ethical dimension of halakhah. If we fail to achieve this catharsis, the law of cause and effect will prevail, and just as day follows night tragic results will ensue: Halakhah will become merely a technical discipline—like geometry—that holds no practical wisdom and commands little respect outside of parochial Orthodoxy. Poseqim who offer amoral halakhic opinions will be just sharp legal minds devoid of kedushah. And technical applications of halakhah without moral integrity will bring opprobrium upon Orthodoxy, causing many people—even Orthodox Jews committed to fairness, ethics and compassion—to hold halakhah in disrepute.

The good news is that most Torah Jews are committed to moral integrity and are ahead of insulated halakhic authorities on these issues. They feel the moral problematics of receiving but not donating organs; they agree with IDF’s ethical standards and reject the legitimacy of targeting innocent civilians; and they are against mistreating, misdiagnosing and harming homosexual persons in the name of halakhah. These Jews need to work with halakhic authorities, demanding that their rulings demonstrate elemental fairness and acknowledge recognized standards of justice, that they maximize human welfare and respect both scientific fact and practical wisdom. And committed Torah Jews need to publically reject rabbinic decisions violating ethical standards.

We need this moral catharsis not only for gaining the respect of thinking people outside Orthodoxy or to benefit from the scientific and professional expertise of doctors, ethicists, IDF leaders, psychologists or therapists. As Rav Soloveitchik insisted, the commitment to moral integrity and quest for ethical purity flows from the deepest springs of the Torah itself. We can fulfill God’s challenge for us be holy only when we lead lives of tzedakah and mishpat. No matter how acute our technical halakhic analyses, how punctilious our observance of mitzvot bein adam la-Makom or how many additional ritual prohibitions we adopt, our lives will lack kedushah if we remain deaf to the transcendent voice of ethical responsibility.

The Torah demands that we “do what is good and right in the eyes of the Lord.” Profound commitment to moral excellence in deciding halakhah and acting toward all people created b’tzelem Elokim is no simple task. Yet God requires nothing less from each one of us—rabbis and laypersons alike—if we are to fulfill the Torah’s aspiration for the Jewish people to be a mamlekhet kohanim and an am kadosh. Only then will we be able to be mekadshai Shem shamayim to ourselves and to the world.


Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn is the Academic Director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding in Israel and formerly the editor of The Edah Journal/Meorot.