To Seek and To Find - A Devar Torah for Va'etchanan

The following was submitted as a Devar Torah to Beit Hillel's email list.
I first delivered the exegetical component to Washington Heights Congregation
(The Bridge Shul) in 2001. The message has been updated.

In his “Varieties of Religious Experience,” William James identifies the “sad discordancy” of religious experiences in the secular world. “But they come seldom, and they do not come to everyone; and the rest of life makes no connection with them, or tends to contradict them than it confirms them.”  This sentiment is succinctly captured by the quote, “If you speak to God, you’re religious; if he answers, you’re psychotic.”

We are no doubt familiar with the spiritual spectacle of Sinai, where the Jewish people were gathered to experience mass revelation. But for all its glory and significance, the Sinaitic revelation was essentially passive. The Jewish people might have accepted with “na’aseh venishma,” but the revelation itself was dependent entirely on God.  Witnessing such an experience, especially en masse, leaves little room for spiritual skepticism.  But since the revelation at Sinai was a one-time event, we would need some guidance of encountering God when God’s presence is less explicit, or perhaps even distant.

While Va’etchanan recounts the revelation at Sinai, it also provides a such a scenario and it solution. In the (inevitable) event the Jewish people will eventually sin by worshipping other Gods, they will be exiled and scattered among the nations of the world where we will continue in our idolatrous ways. And yet despite being immersed in this physical and spiritual exile, there is hope for reconciliation. We are told, וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם מִשָּׁם אֶת־יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּמָצָאתָ כִּי תִדְרְשֶׁנּוּ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶׁךָ - And from there you will seek out God and you will find him; Because/If you will seek with him with all of your heart and all of your soul (Devarim 4:29).

If we pay attention to the grammar of this verse, we notice a change in number in both halves. First we are told we will seek God in the plural (וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם) but we will find God in the singular (וּמָצָאתָ) The reason being that our seeking in the plural, תִדְרְשֶׁנּוּ, would have been done with all of our hearts and souls as individuals בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶׁךָ.  I believe the message is that while we may search for God as a community we can “find” God only as individuals.

As individuals, we all have our own various skills and life experiences which will ultimately determine how we relate to God, and these skills and experiences will hopefully mature during the course of our lives.  Assuming the Maimonidean premise that God is essentially unknowable, the most anyone can hope for is an incomplete understanding.  If no one can achieve complete understanding, then we are all essentially grasping at fragments, none of which can be considered “better” than the other. All that is required is a complete devotion to the exploration.

This approach is not without its challenges, the most obvious being religious relativism. However, here too we are given some direction in that we are commanded to remember that in the Sinaitic revelation we saw no image (Devarim 4:15). Setting aside theological arguments as to the corporeality of God, it is apparent that God does not wish to be worshipped as a corporeal entity. It is, essentially, an “incorrect” belief. Following this precedent I would suggest that regardless of our personal conceptions of God or God’s role in the world, our primary responsibility is obedience to God’s commandments.

But perhaps the greater challenge we face is not rampant relativism but the assuredness certitude that our conception of God is correct and complete such that we may judge others’ to be incorrect, not because of explicit verses to the contrary, but on the sole basis that it contradicts our own comprehension. Just as we are charged with seeking God for ourselves, we cannot deny that very same directive of others, even as they reach a different understanding based on their own hearts and souls.

If complete knowledge of God is unknowable, we must appreciate that even our best understanding is only fragmentary, and that it is possible others may contribute other fragments of which we may be unaware. To seek God as a collective means accepting one’s own limitations as well as the varieties of religious experiences of others, to be open to different ideas without imposing our own incomplete knowledge as the absolute truth. Perhaps by incorporating all the fragments, even the conflicting ones, will we merit to find God, both as individuals and as spiritual community.

Posted in Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah.

Thoughts on the RCA's GPS Committee Report

Following recent high-profile scandals, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) commissioned a committee to review its centralized conversion system of Geirus Policies and Standards, otherwise known as the GPS. This independent committee, "was comprised of men and women, participants in the conversion process, Dayyanim, mental health professionals, and rabbinic leaders," whose expertise and experience were especially suited for reviewing the halakhic, social, and psychological components of the conversion process.

At its recent convention, the RCA released the final report of the committee (PDF), which deserves some attention. 1
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Notes:

  1. I also highly recommend reading committee member Evelyn Fruchter’s speech delivered at the same RCA convention, available here. (PDF)
Posted in Judaism. Tagged with , , , .

The Existential Religious Challenge of Same-Sex Marriage

I'm not a coward, I've just never been tested.
I'd like to think that if I was I would pass.
Look at the tested, and think there but for the grace go I.
Might be a coward, I'm afraid of what I might find out.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, “The Impression That I Get”

With the recent US Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges declaring same-sex marriage to be a constitutionally protected right, religious organizations are understandably concerned as to how they will be affected by this new legal reality.  In addition to public statements issued by The Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union, several rabbinic colleagues have expressed similar concerns shared by other religious leaders regarding what this ruling might mean for their own practice, particularly if they will now be forced to officiate or facilitate a practice which violates their religious beliefs. 1

Aside from these concerns over government interference in religious affairs, the Supreme Court’s ruling may have more salient ramifications on a communal level. Specifically, with same-sex marriage legalized nationally, Orthodox homosexual couples may be more likely take advantage of the benefits such legal recognition provides. This new reality may create new tensions within communities where such couples may expect or demand religious recognition for their union.

While these concerns are currently dominating the discussion, my sense is that the attention is misplaced. I do not mean to be dismissive of the concerns of others, but I suggest the details are not nearly as significant as the underlying existential tensions.
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Notes:

  1. In 2011 when New York was about to legalize same-sex marriage, I argued that Orthodox Jews should not oppose such legislation but rather insist on religious protections.
Posted in Politics, Religion, Society. Tagged with , , , , .

The Simple Neglected Solution to Preventing Rabbinic Scandals

After yet another Rabbinic colleague's unrabbinic behavior makes headline news, the Jewish web once again finds itself flooded with indignation, recriminations, and general critiques of Orthodox Judaism - if not thinly veiled dissertations on the evils of religion and power. If the predictable pattern continues, in due time we will inevitably be about systemic changes which need to be made to revamp the entire religious society. This sound and fury of righteous indignation will produce little more than perpetuating already deeply held resentments, produce even less by way of substantive change, while mostly benefiting the loudest remaining survivors on the battle of the moral high ground.

I cannot speak for my Rabbinic colleagues, but each scandal (and subsequent backlash) is something I cannot help but take personally. I do not mean that I am in any way a victim, nor am I pleading for sympathy or understanding. It's personal for me in the sense that I have spent much thought, time, energy, and effort into perfecting the craft of being a pulpit Rabbi. This comes from years of growing up in a Rabbinic household as well as a brief but intense tenure at The Stanton St. Shul. To this day I still engage with colleagues and mentors about issues and strategies, not because I have immediate expectations to return to the Rabbinate, but because I take personal pride in the professional pulpit.

With this in mind, my interest today is not to defend the Rabbinate, but to improve it. To do so I would like to revisit one of my greatest grievances of the professional Rabbiante, about which I even devoted a class years ago. Specifically, in my opinion one of the most unconscionable oversights in Rabbinic education is the complete lack of attention and concern for the halakhic ethics of Religious leadership.
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Posted in Judaism. Tagged with , , , .

The Eighteen Minute Matzah Myth

Compared to Judaism's regular dietary laws, the rules for being Kosher for Passover are decidedly stricter. Not only is the punishment for consuming chametz the more severe karet (Ex. 12:15, 12:19), but the chametz is prohibited even in trace amounts (B. Pesachim 30a). Considering how strict the Jewish community is regarding keeping a kosher kitchen, it should not be surprising to find even more stringencies when it comes to the laws of Passover.

One problem we find with stringencies in Jewish Law is the tendency to confuse the additions with the actual to the point where being confronted with halakhic sources can be jarring to people who might not know any better. I wrote about one such example several years ago, and I recently came across another misconception common enough to be worthy of discussion.
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Posted in Jewish Law / Halakha. Tagged with , , , , , .

Ep 169 This Week in Daf Yomi Ketuvot 16-22 - Life Lessons From Jewish Weddings

This week in Daf Yomi, Rabbi Yuter discusses some life lessons learned from the Jewish wedding.

Ep 169 This Week in Daf Yomi Ketuvot 16-22 - Life Lessons From Jewish Weddings

Posted in This Week In Daf Yomi (TWIDY).

Ep. 168 This Week in Daf Yomi Ketuvot 9-15 - Confronting Insensitive Sugyot

The Talmud was clearly not written with modern day sensibilities in mind, which may lead to disturbing reactions from those who study it. Rabbi Yuter gives some examples from the previous week's Daf Yomi and discusses some approaches to handling these passages.

Consider this more of a beginning of a discussion than a definitive solution, and hopefully, guests can come on to share different perspectives (schedules permitting).

Posted in This Week In Daf Yomi (TWIDY).

Ep. 167 - Half-Year Aliyahversary!

In a rare personal podcast, Rabbi Yuter shares experiences from his first six months as an Oleh Hadash (new immigrant to Israel).

Posted in Podcasts.

Ep. 166 This Week in Daf Yomi Ketuvot 2-8 - Kol Demekadesh Ada'ata Derabbanan Mekadesh

Rabbi Yuter begins a brand new Podcast series called This Week in Daf Yomi discussing topics covered in the previous week's schedule of daily Talmud study. Today's edition discusses the ramifications of principle in Jewish law that all Jewish marriages are performed with the approval of the Rabbinic sages.

References are made to two previous podcasts: Understanding the Agunah Problem and Solutions to the Agunah Problem.

Comments welcome!

Posted in This Week In Daf Yomi (TWIDY).

Reviewing Rabbinic Oversight: A Response to Rabbi Jeffrey Fox

Rabbi Jeffrey Fox recently published a teshuvah regarding the presence of the male Beit Din at the mikvah immersion of a female convert. My response came out to over 20 pages with footnotes and formatting, which I feel would be as annoying to read as a blog post as it would be for me to transcribe it. As such I am posting my response in PDF format here and on Scribd. I strongly encourage readers to first consult R. Fox's teshuvah (PDF) in the original. I also reference and recommend reading Immersion, Dignity, Power, Presence and Gender by Rabbi Ethan Tucker.

Rabbi Josh Yuter - Reviewing Rabbinic Oversight a Response to Rabbi Jeffrey Fox (PDF)

Rabbi Josh Yuter - Reviewing Rabbinic Oversight a Response to Rabbi Jeffrey Fox

Posted in Jewish Law / Halakha. Tagged with , , , , .