Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Blog Hiatus Until April 1

I hate to do this, but I'm going to take a couple weeks' break from blogging.

The good news is that it's because I got a job! Even better, it's an awesome job! But I'm having a hard time getting my schedule arranged. Too many irons in the fire, you might say: starting a new job, starting a chavruta (and been trying two weeks to get in touch with a second chavruta!), and starting to date. Add to this that I'm due to travel out of state for a week and a half of the next three weeks, and I predict a perfect storm of schedule insanity.

To be honest, I didn't realize how much time I spent creating content for the blog. It's a surprising amount, even for a nerdy Type A perfectionist like myself.

When I come back, I'm planning a schedule of 3 blog posts a week: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings at 10am. Klout score is gonna suffer. I suppose it was bound to happen sooner or later.

See you in a few weeks! Be well!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Phrase of the Day: Off the Derech

Calling someone "off the derech" can mean many things, depending on who the speaker is. There are apparently many ways of categorizing someone as off the derech. But at the end of the day, it's a judgment about someone else, which you should probably avoid when you can. It may matter to know whether someone is off the derech or not (for example, whether you can eat their food), but that doesn't mean you have to go around announcing it to others.

Now if you don't know this phrase already, I've got you all confused. Most basically, it means that someone who was once orthodox is no longer orthodox. There is no distinction whether the person was frum-from-birth, baal teshuva, or a convert. 

Derech means path, so this Hebrew-English hybrid means that someone has "left the path." They've "lost their way," so to speak. And yes, it generally comes with the attitude you'd imagine in "Oh...Jimmy sure has lost his way." Add a "bless his heart," and you just translated it to Southern. Just so we're clear, someone must have been on the path in order to fall off the derech.

However, that's not the only way you see people use the phrase. I've heard the term used in chassidic and chareidi contexts for someone who has left a particular community, usually leaving for modern orthodoxy or "just plain orthodox" orthodoxy. Sure, maybe they don't hold by cholov yisrael anymore, don't have peyos or a beard, or ::gasp!:: are women wearing pants! In my opinion, that's far from off the derech if you have a solid observance of Shabbat, kashrut, taharat hamishpacha (the Big Three for judgment purposes), dressing modestly (which can be done with pants, though I personally chose to hold by my community standard not to wear pants), davening regularly, keeping the interpersonal laws, and otherwise being a Good Yid. Holding by halacha and actually following it is what makes an orthodox Jew, not the physical trappings of a uniform. Don't accidentally mislabel someone as off the derech because they're wearing the wrong uniform.

As I mentioned above, it can be important to know if someone is off the derech. For example, before setting someone up with your friend on a shidduch date! Or eating in their home. It can also have halachic implications. For example, you can only cook on yom tov for people who would otherwise be unable to cook for yom tov, which can be a real problem when inviting conversion candidates to yontif meals. (There's several answers to "fix" that, but I don't think we've put them into one post yet...I'll make a note.) But it's not limited to non-Jews. It also creates problems with "public Shabbat violators." The "fix" is the same as with a conversion candidate, but if you get upset that there's one more difference between you and born-Jews, remember this example as something that can also apply to born Jews. That's a petty thing to make you feel better, but no one claimed the emotional side of conversion brings out your best qualities.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Can You Be an Orthodox Jew Who Happens to Be Vegetarian or Vegan?

YES! But depends on who you ask.

There is a halachic basis for the rabbis who declare you must eat meat on Shabbat. (Though even they will admit there was a great rabbi-whose name I forget-who was vegetarian every day but Shabbat.) I find most of these rabbis tend to be far to the "right" in the orthodox community.

My understanding is that the source for this is that the Talmud says one is required to be happy on Shabbat by eating meat and drinking wine. On the other hand, other rabbis conclude that the list was given to be merely an example of the things that could make you happy. And that if eating meat would make you unhappy, it would actually be a mitzvah for you to avoid eating it on Shabbat.

All that said, I know of at least one beit din that requires vegetarian converts to vow they will eat meat on Shabbat and will accept no other interpretation. So if you're a vegetarian or vegan, I suggest throwing it out there to your rabbis as early as possible to see how they react. There is definitely a machloket, and if you need to change to another beit din, so be it. Otherwise, be prepared to accept their ruling (and maybe later figure out how you can choose to follow a new ruling).

And now for your enjoyment, one of the best "stuff people say" videos I've seen.

Disclaimer: While I am not a vegetarian or vegan, I was a vegetarian for a relatively short time in the past. (And I'm primarily a vegetarian because I'm lazy.) The comments in this video are not limited to Jews. I can personally attest to the French people's similar confusion and stubborn insistence that chicken isn't really meat. (Most Americans are too politically correct and have been exposed to a great deal more vegetarianism than most of the world!)

Friday, March 2, 2012

What If You Don't Like One of the Mitzvot...Can You Still Convert Orthodox?

One of the biggest disagreements about conversion is kabbalot ol mitzvot, the acceptance of the yoke of the commandments. 

In case you don't remember, yoke mean burden, not to be confused with a yolk. Fun fact: the "stock" from "being put in the stocks" is a human yoke. Criminals and slaves were put in stocks. Sounds exciting to take on the mitzvot now, right? Don't worry, the fun doesn't end there. Marriage was also traditionally analogized to the yoke.

The Gemara says that if a conversion candidate says, "I will keep your Torah, except this one thing," the rabbi shouldn't convert him or her. Of course, rabbis have found much to disagree about even in such a straight-forward-sounding sentence, especially when combined with other discussions in the Talmud like Rabbi Hillel's conversion of a man who agreed only to accept the Written Torah but not the Oral Torah. Rabbis argue whether Hillel actually performed the conversion while he still believed that or only after he came to trust Hillel's teachings that the Oral Torah exists and is binding on all Jews. This case seems to be the major wrench in this entire debate.

This halacha is most often applied to the case of a woman dating or married to a kohen. A female convert can't marry a kohen (women can't be kohanim, so it doesn't matter for men). So if a woman says, "I want to marry Joe Bob the Kohen here, I want to be converted," then the rabbi cannot convert her because she is showing the rabbis that she doesn't intend to keep the prohibition of a convert not marrying a kohen. And this case gives the rabbis the right to infer the intent to not keep a mitzvah based on the actions of the candidate. As the rabbinic rulings evolve over time, there are cases where the rabbis choose to avoid the inference. Rabbis can also choose to not ask the question, as Rabbi David Hoffman said in the case below.

At least one, and probably more, cases involve women being converted to marry a kohen. The one I remember is an exceptionally unusual case from the late 1800s/early 1900s: a gentile woman married a kohen secularly. Their baby died, and she mistakenly assumed the baby was a Jew because his father was a Jew. She became very upset and distressed. This distress was created by the sadness that she and her baby were not of the same religion, and the rabbi was afraid that she might go mad. So the rabbis decided to let her convert. I think this case has very little application for anyone else. And if you want to try to make it applicable by going mad, I think they're more likely to institutionalize and medicate you long before they convert you. To be fair, the rabbi did not allow her to have a Jewish marriage with her kohen husband. He ruled that it would be "better" for the couple to live together without a Jewish marriage. That last part is included solely for your amusement. It's not relevant to our discussion.

Going back to the "I want to marry so-and-so" hypothetical above, lack of kabalat ol mitzvot is generally the reason why a person cannot be converted while pursuing a relationship with a non-observant Jew. A house divided cannot stand, and many converts have lost their partner for being "too Jewish." Without both partners committed to orthodox observance, the convert is not going to be able to observe all of the mitzvot since some involve both sides of a marriage, plus the issues of kashrut and Shabbat (and maybe even sabotage of them by the partner!). While there used to be significant debate about whether such candidates should be accepted anyway (up until just a couple of decades ago?), that debate is mostly closed today, especially since the Israeli Rabbinate has pushed the diaspora states to take a machmir stance on this issue. Performing those kinds of conversions could bring significant disrepute on a rabbi's other conversions today.

Now I don't want to scare you, but a failure to have kabalat ol mitzvot at the time of conversion is one of the things that makes a conversion void, as though it never existed. And that's where the trouble lies: someone could argue that you didn't have the intention to fulfill all the mitzvot at the time of conversion. The allegations could be based on true events or made-up ones depending on how unlucky you are, but you're already in an "elite" crowd if you ever have this issue. But getting back to the issue, it's almost impossible to prove what was in someone's mind as they stood in the mikvah. Arguing there was no kabalat ol mitzvot can be very difficult unless the candidate immediately violated the mitzvot and continued to do so. This is the subject of the argument over Russian conversions in Israel.

(This same non-observance is a major reason why non-orthodox conversions are not accepted as being legitimate conversions. Because of the alleged failure of even the rabbis - who are responsible for teaching the convert how to be "Jewish" - to observe all the mitzvot as a general rule, there is a presumption that the converts cannot have the halachically required kabalat ol mitzvot at the time of immersion in the mikvah. That is why a liberal conversion that has a beit din, bris, and mikvah could be ruled un-kosher, but there is also the argument that non-observant Jews on the beit din - including the rabbi - make the beit din an invalid beit din, and thus, they cannot approve a conversion.)

Background on the Russian conversion issue: Soviet Jewry was a big deal. Google it if you have no idea what I'm talking about. When the iron curtain fell, Jews and descendants of Jews poured into Israel to begin a new life. These people had been labeled as Jews by the Soviet government and suffered for being Jews. But many were not halachicly Jewish, which doesn't matter for the purpose of making aliyah, but eventually these immigrants want to get married, etc. There is no civil marriage in Israel, only religious marriage, and the Rabbinate are the arbitrars of who is Jewish enough for a Jewish marriage. Having always affiliated as a Jew but being secular, many of these Russians are having issues resolving their status because they are not willing to take on kabalat ol mitzvot - and I'm glad they're generally honest enough to say so! But they still want the conversion, and some rabbis are turning to these older responsa that provide alternate ways of defining kabalat ol mitzvot or trying to avoid the issue altogether. Sephardim are generally more lenient in these matters, but the entire thing has been a mess. I don't foresee it getting resolved anytime soon.

But I guess you want "the answer" to the subject of this post: Can you still convert if you refuse to do X, Y, and Z? I'm no rabbi, but I would say no. However, whether those topics come up in conversation so that the rabbis are aware of your refusal is a different matter. However, in today's orthodox conversions, it is highly unlikely you will convert if you don't appear to be accepting everything and living a fully Torah-observant life. The totally secular will not convert unless there were some serious considerations in favor of the conversion and a rabbi willing to stick his neck out for it (they exist). As a practical matter, when you stand in the mikvah (and maybe beforehand too), you will be asked whether you agree to certain things. Acceptance of both the Oral and Written Law and the rabbinic interpretation and enactments will be one of those things. So I hope you're prepared to answer honestly.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Purim in a Nutshell: The Four Mitzvot of Purim

Purim begins next Wednesday night, March 7, 2012. Purim is a rabbinic holiday instead of a holiday commanded by the written Torah. That is why you can still drive, spend money, use electricity, etc. While you can go to work, there is a difference of opinion. If possible, you should avoid it.

Since conversion candidates like checklists, what are the four mitzvot you need to make sure you accomplish this Purim?

Attend two Megillah readings. You must attend two live readings from a kosher scroll. Sorry, no recordings. The first reading must be on Purim night. The second reading is during the day, and it doesn't have to be during the morning. There may be several times scheduled.

The scroll must be kosher in the same way that a Torah scroll is kosher. You most likely don't have a handwritten animal skin scroll sitting around the house. If you are bedridden, you can request for someone to come to your home/hospital/etc to read the Megillah to you. Getting the day reading can be difficult if you are going to work. Remember to make arrangements in advance to leave work, come in late, or attend a reading before the workday begins.

Depending on your reader and your audience, the reading will take approximately an hour. It is customary to make noise whenever Haman's name is read (Chabad has a more limited custom towards Haman's name). You can do this with groggers (traditional noisemakers not to be confused with the band), stomping your feet, booing, or any other noise. If you don't own any noisemakers, come to shul anyway, and someone will bring extra! You can also get party noisemakers any time of year, in addition to the Mardi Gras items that will be out somewhat near Purim (depending on the year, this year is well-timed). If you can't read to follow along, you won't know when to expect Haman's name, but just start making noise when everyone else does. Listen carefully and you'll learn to hear it. Caution, beware the child who will randomly start making noise. If you're too quick on the draw, you will be the Purim equivalent of the lone clapper.

The following three mitzvot are done on Purim day:

Send gifts of ready-to-eat food. These are called misloach manot (shalach manos in Ashkenazi-speak). You are obligated to give two items of immediately edible food to one person. For instance, fruit, a bag of chips, and candy are all ready to eat. Examples of items that aren't immediately edible: popcorn, canned goods, instant coffee or coffee beans, and soup mixes.

Send gifts to the poor. You must give to two separate needy people. You can donate in advance of Purim day if the organization will distribute the money/food items on Purim day. Ideally, you should donate enough money/food items for a meal for each person. Less than that can satisfy it, but you may want to check any specific situations with your rabbi.

Attend or make a seudah. Seudah is a general word for "festive meal." You can, should, and probably do make a seudah for all the holidays that aren't fasting days. On Shabbat, you have heard of seudah slishit, the third meal. All the meals of Shabbat could be considered seudahs. You will probably pay to attend a community seudah, but you can make one at home as well. Prepare a bigger/more elaborate meal than you normally do and make sure you're not celebrating alone! The minimum standard for a seudah is to ritually wash your hands (netilat yadayim), eat bread, and bentch the Grace after Meals (birkat hamazon). Note that some argue meat and wine must be involved for it to be a seudah, but that is a machloket we'll learn more about on Monday!

Chag sameach! Purim sameach! Happy holiday! Happy Purim!