Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Ki Tavo

Mixed Blessings?

In the middle of the extended section on the calamities and curses that will befall the Israelites if they fail to observe the mitzvot, we find a curious set of verses:

Because you served not the Lord your God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things; therefore shall you serve your enemies which the Lord shall send against you, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things (Devarim, 28:47-48).

Not only have we sinned, the Torah seems to be telling us, we sinned when we had every opportunity to serve God to the best of our ability, when we were prosperous and happy. And so, as a measure-for-measure punishment, we will be stripped of this goodness and left in a state of dependency and want.

Read this way, the message seems to be that it is easier to serve God when all is going well. But is this actually the case? Often, the exact opposite is true. When we are dependent and in need we call out to God. When we are successful, we tend to forget God. Sometimes this is because we are drawn after hedonistic, or at least materialistic, pleasures. At other times we grow arrogant, thinking, as the verse states, that "it is my power and the might of my hand that has gotten me this wealth" (8:17).

Most of the time, however, it is not so much that we rebel against or reject God but something more subtle and, for that reason, all the more pervasive. It is a variation of Pierre-Simon Laplace's reported response to Napoleon's question ("But where is God in all this?") after he had discussed the orbits of Saturn and Jupiter: "Sire, I had no need for that hypothesis." When we have it good, we have "no need for that hypothesis." God stops being a present force in our life, stops serving an obvious purpose. It is less about rejecting than it is about ignoring and forgetting. This is of course a problem that we face today. Overall, we have it quite good. What makes us remember God?

One drastic possibility is presented in our parasha: hardship and privation. If the people are taken as slaves and made naked and starving, they will by necessity turn to God to save them. Even less severe circumstances could lead to a profound sense of dependency. Consider the verse at the end of the section of curses: "And your life shall hang in doubt before you; and you shall fear day and night, and shall have none assurance of your life" (28:66).

The simple sense of this verse is that every moment you will fear the next tragedy that may befall you. But the Talmud (Menachot, 103b), quoted by Rashi, offers another explanation: "you will not have any stored food, but will have to rely on the baker daily for your bread." When Boris Yeltsin visited the United States in 1989, seeing an American supermarket impressed him more than anything else. In the USSR people had to wait in long lines in hopes of receiving basic food items, and here all was available for the taking. The AP reported that on returning to Russia he said to his followers, "Their supermarkets have 30,000 food items....You can't imagine it. It makes the people feel secure."

This basic sense of security that we all take for granted can make it so hard to see God in our lives. As someone once said in regard to the challenge of tefillah in Modern Orthodox schools: "We are asking the children to pray in a language they don't understand, to a God they might not believe in, for things they don't need." If we are free from basic need, what will make us turn to God?

Undoubtedly, were we reduced to privation and a precarious existence, were our lives "hanging in doubt before us," we would turn to God on a regular basis. But this is certainly not something we would wish on anyone. There is a reason that this is a curse in the Torah. It is an answer of last resort. So what then is the ideal solution?

An answer can be found in the opening of our parasha. There the people are told that they are to bring their first fruits to the Temple and express their gratitude for what God has given them. But it is not just a simple "thank you," for it is easy to say thank you without any real meaning. The Torah, rather, teaches us how to say thank you. Before any thanks are uttered, the person first recites what has brought him to this place: the descent to Egypt, the slavery, the calling out to God, God's redemption of the people, and God's giving the land of Israel to the people. We must pause to remember how and when things were different. If our national history is vivid in our memory, if the hardships faced, wars fought, and challenges overcome are in the forefront of our consciousness, then we will know what God has given us and what God is continuing to give to us.

What is the antidote for the concern that we will not serve God bi'simcha u'bi'tuv levav meirov kol, in joy and gladness of the heart, from an abundance of good? Learning how to appreciate that what we have is from God. Then, the Torah tells us, using almost identical phrasing, vi'samachta bi'kol hatov, you will rejoice in all the good. And it will be a rejoicing that serves God, because you will know that it is kol ha'tov asher natan likha Hashem E-lokhekha, "the good that you have been given by God" (26:11).

Of course, this is easier said than done. The point of giving thanks to God is to cultivate this sense of gratitude and blessedness, but it doesn't happen automatically. We have many blessings in our liturgy which can help us do this - the blessings before food, the blessings after food, blessings on good tidings, on wonders of nature - but if these are said mechanically they will fail to shape our religious sensibilities. The lesson from the recital of the first fruits is that we must not only pay attention to what we are saying (already a major accomplishment), but we must also take the time to truly consider how things were different in the past and how things could be different, were we not so fortunate, in the present.

In a way, this is a variation of the line, "Remember that there are children starving in Africa." As a means of getting a child to eat her food, this statement is probably useless today. But a thoughtful consideration of the privation of others can help a person cultivate a sense of appreciation for the opportunities and advantages that she has been given and a sense of gratitude to God for the blessings that she has received.

This suggests another, related, approach. For in full, the final verse of the first fruits reads thusly: "And you shall rejoice in all the good that God has given you and your household - you, and the Levi, and the stranger in your midst." The command to share our bounty with those less fortunate is not just an outgrowth of our recognition that our prosperity comes from God; it can actually be the source of this recognition. If we go out and contribute to the betterment of those who are less fortunate than ourselves, if we approach them not just with sympathy but with empathy, if we put ourselves in their place and understand their realities, then it will not be possible for us to take what we have for granted. If we spend more time in homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and depressed neighborhoods, we will more deeply appreciate what it is that God has given us.

This does not mean that we are to use these individuals instrumentally so that we can feel more blessed. Far from it! Rather, by truly caring and connecting we will naturally appreciate our blessings, and then, just as naturally, we will be led to share these blessings with them since we will know that, ultimately, all these blessings come from God. This virtuous cycle will then repeat. The more we feel blessed, the more we will give. And the more we give, the more we will feel blessed.

As Rosh HaShanah approaches, let us pray that next year will be one of only blessings and prosperity. And let us do what we need to do to be deserving of these blessings. Let us live our lives with the knowledge that what we have is a blessing from God, so that we may truly rejoice in all the good that God has given us, us and the Levi and the stranger in our midst.

Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Shoftim

The recent news of an alternative conversion court in Israel headed by some of the most prominent religious-Zionist rabbis - Rabbi Nahum Rabinowitz, Rabbi Yaakov Medan, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, and Rabbi David Stav - represents a major step toward breaking the Chief Rabbinate's monopoly over matters of personal status in Israel. This is a truly exciting development. Not only will thousands of people who have been denied the opportunity to convert now be able to become Jews in full accordance with halakha, the move also signals a hopeful new era of less centralized institutional rabbinic power in Israel. Greater decentralization means greater diversity and an increase in options (a reality that reflects the true nature of our multi-vocal halakhic system), and have more options and more voices results in more competition, more checks and balances, and - we can only hope - less corruption.

The issue of a high court and centralized rabbinic (or at least judicial) power is a major theme in this week's parasha. In addition to commanding the appointment of judges and officers of the law throughout the land, the Torah also sets up a High Court and takes serious measures to protect its authority. We are told that when a matter cannot be resolved otherwise, the issue should be taken to the place that God has chosen - Jerusalem - and brought before the "priests and the judge who will be at that time" (Devarim, 17:9). This body, understood to be the Sanhedrin or High Court, will issue a ruling which must be followed without deviation. Dissent is not tolerated: "And the person who acts presumptuously, and will not listen to the priest who stands there to serve before the Lord thy God, or unto the judge, that man shall die, and you shall eradicate the evil from Israel" (17:12). The court will act harshly and decisively to stamp out any threat to its authority.

We can understand the need to protect the court's role as the highest authority empowered to interpret the law. If people could interpret and apply the law as they saw fit, general lawlessness would ensue. Nevertheless, it is hard to identify with the harshness of the response - the death penalty! - for any deviation. Moreover, such squelching of opposing and critical voices would seem to give the court absolute, unchecked power. What, then, is to stop absolute power from corrupting absolutely?

As far as the death penalty is concerned, the Rabbis significantly limited its scope. While making it clear that the duty to follow the rulings of the court is incumbent upon everyone, the Rabbis said that the death penalty of the verses is reserved for the zaken mamre, the rebellious elder. Only a great sage, a great legal scholar, can receive such a punishment. If he acts in opposition to the court and, the Rabbis add, rules for others in this manner, then he has positioned himself as a competing legal authority. Theoretical debate is fine, but to rule in practice against the court is not. This can truly undermine the authority of the court, and it must be stopped. The Rabbis impose many more criteria for one to be considered a zaken mamre, effectively making this category moot. With the death penalty effectively removed, how can the court's authority be defended against real opposition?

We are told in a well-known story that Rabbi Eliezer ruled that a certain oven was ritually pure while all other rabbis ruled that it was impure. Rabbi Eliezer cited miraculous signs showing that he was correct: a carob tree was uprooted, a stream of water flowed backwards, and the walls of the study house bent in. The punch line comes when the rabbis say to God: "The Torah is not in Heaven! It is for us to decide!" In this audacious story, the authority of the court is so great that it trumps even God's own claim as to the true meaning of the Torah! But the story doesn't end there, for the court's authority has been challenged not only by God, who in the story chuckles and steps back, but also by a great rabbinic sage, someone who is not willing to step down and go quietly, someone who acts in highly public and demonstrative ways to prove that he is right. This, the story tells us, is a serious threat.

Perhaps the carob, the stream, and the walls of the study house represent the societal structures and the natural order of things. Taken this way, Rabbi Eliezer's insistence on his position against the court can be interpreted as an attempt to reverse the natural order, an act that could shake the foundations of society. And it must be stopped: "On that day, all that objects that R. Eliezer had declared to be ritually clean were brought in and burnt by fire" (Baba Mezia 59b). Without violence and without putting anyone to death, the rabbis demonstrated, firmly and decisively, that challenges to its authority would not and could not be tolerated. But with such absolute authority, who is to keep the court honest? What checks and balances exist over it? For this, we return to the beginning of the parasha: the appointment of judges.

In the United States, the ability of other branches of government to appoint and approve justices and to create lower courts serves as a check to the power of the Supreme Court. This echoes the Torah's mandate that the people appoint the judges and create regional courts: "Judges and officers you shall appoint in all your gates [meaning cities] and all your tribes" (16:18). Regional courts distribute the power; it is not completely in the hands of the High Court. With only a very few cases reaching the High Court for adjudication, almost all the interpretation and application of law is done by the regional courts. In effect, the court system is rather decentralized. Every court makes decisions for the constituents under its jurisdiction, but its decisions must also be recognized by the courts of other jurisdictions if it is to maintain its authority (Rav Moshe Feinstein provides a nice discussion of this in his Dibrot Moshe, Shabbat, 10.2).

In addition to this structural decentralization there is a mandate that the court work to protect the rights of the marginal and disempowered in society as it represents the majority: "You shall not pervert judgment; you shall not respect persons....Justice, only justice, you shall pursue" (16:19-20). Judges must protect themselves against outside influences accordingly: "You may not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and corrupts the words of the righteous" (16:19). According to the Rabbis, this applies even if it the bribe is intended to guarantee correct judgment.

While these are powerful mandates, there is no body to ensure that they are being followed. The court must be its own watchdog. If the judges are found in violation, they can be disqualified with a type of impeachment. Short of that, their own integrity must keep them in check. It is for this reason that, in Yitro's advice to Moshe, the Torah describes the need for high personal character in the judges. This and only this will keep them honest. But such men are hard to find and, once found, can still be corrupted by power. A story is told that when Rav Maimon, the first Minister of Religion in Israel, was looking to reestablish the Sanhedrin he was asked by Ben Gurion, "But where will you find people who are sonei batzah [Shemot, 18:21], despisers of unearned gain?" Rav Maimon responded, "With enough money you can get anything, even sonei batzah."

It is clear that a lot rides on the appointment of judges: who is chosen, who does the choosing, who they represent, and the strength of their personal character and integrity. Outside Israel, halakhic authority is distributed and adherence to it is volitional (as a matter of secular law). By nature, rabbis and the batei din have to be more responsive to those who would come to them. In Israel, however, we have rabbinical courts with real concentrated authority. Until now their authority has been even more centralized than the system described in our parasha. Recent events give us hope that a more decentralized system will continue to develop and take hold. But whether highly centralized or less so, true justice requires the right judges. If we are to have rabbinic bodies with real power, then it is incumbent upon us to make sure that as a society we are living up to our parasha's mandate to ensure that the judges we appoint truly embody "justice, only justice" for the people whom they serve. With this we will be deserving to merit the blessing of Devarim, 16:20: "So that you will live and possess the land which the Lord your God gives you," for as Rashi tells us, "the appointment of fit and proper judges is worthy of giving life to the Jewish People and to cause them to dwell in their land."

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Re'eh

Twice in the book of Devarim, Moshe warns the people to keep the totality of the Torah, not adding to or detracting from it. In Parashat Re'eh we read, "Whatsoever I command you, that thing you shall observe to do; you shall not add to it, nor diminish from it" (13:1), echoing a parallel prohibition in Parashat Va'Etchanan (Devarim, 4:2),. While the literal, simple sense of these verses is that one should not add to or detract from the entire body of mitzvot, the halakhic meaning is quite different. Rashi puts it succinctly, writing, "You shall not add - for instance, five compartments of tefillin, five species for the lulav, and five tzitzit. And similarly is the meaning of 'you shall not detract'" (on Devarim, 4:2). In other words, an individual cannot perform a mitzvah in a way that changes its core components. However, the Talmud never interprets this verse to mean that one should not add to the corpus of mitzvot. Reading this verse in the latter sense would raise many challenging questions about the Rabbinic enterprise, for isn't creating new laws and adding to those commanded in the Torah what the Rabbis did?

Before attempting an answer to this question, we should stop to consider why adding to the Torah is so wrong. The reason to prohibit detracting is clear: doing so leads to the transgression of Torah prohibitions and to the non-fulfillment of Torah commandments. But why not add? What is wrong with doing more?

The most obvious answer is that additions would compromise the integrity of the Torah. Adding to the Torah leads to misrepresentations of its core message; it is a perversion of dvar Hashem, the actual word of God. This is illustrated by the following tale from Irish mythology:

A man travelling in a forest in Ireland chances upon a leprechaun and succeeds in catching him. He forces the leprechaun to reveal under which tree his pot of gold is buried. The Irishman tied a red handkerchief around the trunk of the tree so he would be able to locate it when he returned with a shovel. Before leaving, he made the leprechaun swear that he would not remove the handkerchief. When he returned the next day, he found that the leprechaun had tied red handkerchiefs around every tree in the forest!

We can efface a thing's identity by adding just as easily as we can by taking away. In the words of the Rabbis: "Kol ha'mosif goreya." Whoever adds, diminishes.

Adding to the corpus of mitzvot holds another inherent danger: it may undermine observance. If every law and practice is treated as God's direct word and given equal weight, then a person who finds herself unable to keep one law might wind up rejecting all, viewing, as she does, all her obligations as one piece. In Haredi cultures, for example, the weight of different halakhot tends to be less differentiated (consider the current intransigence of Haredi rabbis when it comes to the practice of metzitzah b'peh). Often when people leave this world, they land in a place of full secularism and non-observance rather than finding a home in a different form of Orthodoxy or in one of the other movements. Of course, each individual's story is different and has its own dynamics, but often we hear that this phenomenon is rooted in a belief that it is all or nothing. If some of it can't be upheld, then none of it can.

There is also the related concern that adding prohibitions to the Torah can sometimes work at cross-purposes to the Torah's goals. This is what the Rabbis refer to as a chumrah ha'asi lidei kula, a stringency that leads to an unwarranted leniency. This may happen much more frequently than we think, since we are often not sensitive to what we might be sacrificing or compromising by adopting additional strictures. For example, greater demands in the area of ritual mitzvot often translate into compromises in the area of interpersonal mitzvot. Consider the following statement from the Shakh, Rabbi Shabtai Kohen, a seventeenth-century commentator on Shulkhan Arukh:

For in the majority of cases there is a leniency (i.e., a compromise of the law) that results in another area because this thing was made forbidden, and it will thus be a stringency that leads to a leniency. And even if it appears that no (unwarranted) leniency will result, it is possible that one thing will lead to another and a hundred steps down this will be the case (Practices of Prohibitions and Allowances, Yoreh Deah, 248).

Now of course, stringencies are sometimes necessary, but in such cases, Shakh warns, the posek must be careful to make it clear that his ruling is merely a stringency and not the actual halakha. This will help ensure that such rulings are not given undo weight and that they do not compromise more central values and principles.

So the concerns about adding to the Torah are clear: it can undermine the Torah's identity and potentially undermine observance and compromise core values. So how could the Rabbis do what they did?

This question can be skirted by insisting that the meaning of the verse is restricted to its narrow halakhic definition not to add to the core components in the performance of mitzvot. However, both Rambam (twelfth c.) and Ramban (thirteenth c.) insist that this verse does indeed prohibit adding to the body of mitzvot as a whole. Rambam states that this verse also forbids the Rabbis from presenting a Rabbinic law as a Biblical one or representing the meaning of a Biblical law as broader or narrower than it actually is (Laws of Rebels, 2:9). In his commentary on the Torah, Ramban echoes this position in a slightly nuanced fashion when he states that one cannot add new practices to those commanded by the Torah (on Devarim, 4:2).

So the question returns in full force: But isn't this what the Rabbis are always doing, adding new practices? Ramban provides an answer: "Now regarding what the Rabbis prohibited as safeguards....that activity is a Biblical mitzvah, provided that they make it known that these restrictions are made as a safeguard and are not from God's word that is in the Torah."

Ramban's answer contains two points that make the Rabbinic activity allowed: First, they are given explicit license in the Torah to make their legislation and safeguards. This refers to the verse, "u'shmartem mishmarti," and you shall guard my ordinances (Vayikra, 18:30). The Rabbis interpret this to mean, "asu mishmeret li'mishmarti," you -the Rabbis- must protect My mitzvot; you must make safeguards. This is key. It states that the mandate to protect the Torah -to respond to contemporary realities and create practices, institutions, and laws that will ensure the survival of the Torah- is equal to and opposite the concern of adding to the Torah.

Does this mean that the concern of adding to the Torah can be discarded? Hardly. This is where the second part of Ramban's answer comes in. All of this is only allowed if the Rabbinic legislation does not obfuscate what is and is not the Torah. That is, the Rabbis must clearly identify that their activity is of a Rabbinic nature. This point is also made by Rambam: the prohibition only applies when Rabbinic rulings are misrepresented as Biblical.

As Ra'avad states in his critique of Rambam, there is a problem with this. Namely, the claim that the Rabbis were clear about the lines is not borne out by the facts. There are many laws in the Talmud which are not clearly identified as Rabbinic or Biblical. Moreover, the Rabbis sometimes intentionally present Rabbinic laws as Biblical to give them more backing, i.e., an asmakhta. On these grounds, Ra'avad rejects that there is a problem adding to the mitzvot! He states that the meaning of the prohibition is only that one should not alter the performance of a mitzvah; there is no prohibition against adding to the corpus of what is Biblical: the Rabbis do it all the time!

In the end, there are no easy answers. Either the Rabbis clearly identify what is Rabbinic and what is Biblical (they do not), or the pshat meaning of the verse is inaccurate and one can add to the mitzvot. Neither explanation is fully satisfactory. Concerns over adding to the Torah are too often forgotten or ignored, but the importance of the rabbinic safeguards and well-chosen stringencies cannot be minimized. It is only by maintaining this uneasy dialectic that we can hope to truly succeed both in protecting the Torah and in maintaining its integrity.

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Ekev

The Ger, Inclusion, and True Religiosity

Recent events in Israel force us all to question what true religiosity means. Is it measured by the degree to which we separate ourselves from larger society, by the stringencies we adopt, or by how fervently we pray? Or does how we treat other human beings, how we relate to those at the margins, play a large part in how we measure it? Do we see a religious mandate to welcome and treat as equal the LGBT person, the person with disabilities, or the single parent? A lot can be learned from the mitzvah in this week's parasha to love the ger: "Love you therefore the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Devarim, 10:19).

At the pshat level, the ger of the Torah is the resident alien, a person who is not a citizen but resides in our land. Because she lives among us we are responsible for ensuring that she be given equal protection under the law, and we must protect her from possible abuse. The ger is an outsider, someone vulnerable and easily excluded, but because she is among us, we must treat her as one of our own.

The Rabbis of the Talmud understood the Torah's ger as a convert, not as a resident alien. Living as they did after the destruction of the Temple, when Jews no longer had sovereignty, the categories of identity were based on religious affiliation rather than citizenship or geography. The ger was someone who came from outside our religion but, having converted, was now one of us. With this understanding, it became our duty to ensure that she was not mistreated because of whence she came.

The mitzvot regarding the ger - whether the prohibitions against afflicting and oppressing her or the mitzvah to love her - are all reasoned on the fact that we too were once strangers, strangers in the land of Egypt (Shemot, 22:20 and 23:9; Vayikra, 19:34). We knew what it meant to be marginalized when we were powerless, to be outsiders. We cannot allow ourselves to forget those in similar circumstances when we have power. Such people can easily become invisible; our historical memory must compel us to see such people and to ensure that they are treated as full equals.

These principles are readily applicable to people with disabilities; gays, lesbians, or transgender individuals; or those who for one reason or another don't fit within the boundaries of the community as we have come to define it. Such people are indeed part of our community, but they are easily marginalized and overlooked by those with power, those making the decisions and setting communal priorities.

It is not always easy to evoke the empathy called for by the Torah. If it is not possible to draw upon a shared history, we can always call upon a shared future. For example, we teach our students that the world is not divided into those with disabilities and those without; it is divided into those with disabilities and those who do not yet have disabilities. As we grow old, we start to lose some of our physical abilities: We might be the person who is wheelchair bound and needs a ramp. We might be the person with failing eyesight who needs a large print siddur. And I often wonder how people's position regarding homosexuals might change if they had a gay son or daughter.

I find that I must remind myself of this message. When I am standing in line at the supermarket and the elderly woman ahead of me is taking forever to find the correct change and I start getting all worked up - I can't believe how long she is taking! I need to get out of here. I can't wait this long! - I must remember that in twenty years that person could be me. What would I hope from the people standing behind me in line if I were that person? And you know what? That little bit of empathy completely changes my perspective. That little bit of empathy is to remember that we all will be strangers in the land of Egypt.

But that is not the whole story, for in this week's parasha the Torah gives another reason for this mitzvah:

For the Lord your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, the great, mighty and awe-inspiring God, who regards not persons, nor takes any reward. He upholds the cause of the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Love you therefore the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Devarim, 10:17-19).

We must have concern for the ger, the Torah is telling us, because God loves the ger. If we are to strive to be like God, to live a Godly life, then we must love the stranger; we must care for the orphan and the widow.

The theological point implicit in these verses is spelled out at the end of Megillah (31a):

Rabbi Yochanan said: Wherever you find the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, there you find His humility. This is written in the Torah, repeated in the Prophets, and stated a third time in the Writings. It is written in the Torah: "For the Lord your God is God of gods....the great, the mighty and awe-inspiring God..." And it is written afterwards: "He upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing."

God's greatness, Rabbi Yochanan is telling us, is not expressed by God's total otherness or by God's withdrawal from this world. God's greatness is in paying attention to each individual, to the unnoticed, the small and forgotten.

There is a profound lesson here regarding the meaning of true religiosity. For so many people, being more religious means acting in ways that are particularistic, that are ritual-focused, and that serve to distinguish one from the surrounding society. According to this reckoning, heightened scrupulousness about kashrut or wearing distinctive clothing makes a person more frum; being upright in business, being honest, or working at a homeless shelter only makes a person more ethical, not more religious.

This is of course nothing new. Isaiah - as we read just two weeks ago - calls out to the people, "To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? says the Lord....Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the orphan, plead for the widow" (Isaiah, 1: 11, 17). And the problem continues to plague us today. It manifests itself when people rationalize their immoral acts on the basis of being so scrupulous in ritual matters. It also manifests itself in the issuing of halakhic rulings which set unnecessarily high bars for ritual performance and participation, seeing these - and not the demand for inclusion, the protection of those most easily rejected and marginalized - as the religious realms that need to be most protected.

It is not hard to guess at the reason for this. Ritual, particularistic acts make a person feel different, singled out, special. In very real and visible ways, a person engaged in such acts stands out from society. She can tell herself that she is better than those who act and look like everyone else. More to the point, this creates a distinct identity. There is nothing special about acting ethically: That's universal. Even non-Jews do that. To act and dress differently, so the thought goes, that's what makes one Jewish. What else is holy, what else is being like God, if not to be separate and different from the world?

Rabbi Yochanan tells us that if this is how we are thinking, then we've missed the boat. Without a doubt, the ritual, particularistic laws are a core part of our obligations and religious life. But if we really want to be like God we would do well to look at the passage about the ger, for God's expression of God's greatness and complete otherness is in God's ability to take care of those forgotten individuals, to do those basic ethical deeds that everyone else is too important to attend to. To live a Godly life is to live a life with exquisite attention to the poor, the disenfranchised, and the suffering.

Rav Moshe Feinstein says this better than I ever could. According to one opinion in the Talmud by which we rule, a ger cannot serve in a position of authority. Rav Moshe Feinstein was asked if, given this, a ger could serve as a Rosh Yeshiva. Rav Moshe responds:

However, in practice you should know that the mitzvah of "and you shall love the ger" requires us to bring them [converts] close and to be lenient regarding all these things. Therefore, after great thought, it appears that we need not consider such appointments in our time like appointments of authority (Iggrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah, 4:26).

Rav Moshe concludes that this is not a position of authority since a Rosh Yeshiva's power comes from an agreement between parties (the students' parents and the school) and is not imposed perforce from above. The key point, however, is this: When faced with a conflict between the mandate of caring for the ger and the rule excluding her from certain roles, Rav Moshe, while never compromising on the rigorous application of halakha, states in no uncertain terms that it is the mitzvah to love the ger that must guide us and that we must be most strict about. This is what it means to be like God and to live a Godly life.

Shabbat Shalom!