Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Kee tetze

“When brothers dwell together and one of them dies and leaves no offspring, the wife of the deceased shall not become that of another party, outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall unite with her: he shall take her as his wife and perform the levir’s duty.” (Deuteronomy 25:5)

What does a brother owe a brother? (This portion talks explicitly about brothers, but we can expand it to speak of all siblings. What do brothers and sisters owe one another?) There is an ancient law with modern consequences. If one brother dies and he is married with no children, his wife is not free to marry someone else. It is the obligation of the surviving brother to marry the wife and have a child in the name of the brother who died. The living brother must keep the name of the dead brother alive.
This ancient practice is called Levirate marriage. We see it in Genesis with Judah’s sons. Er the oldest son dies, and Onan the next son is expected to have a child with Er’s wife Tamar. Onan spills his seed upon the ground, refusing to have a child in his brother’s name, and then he dies. Judah does not give his youngest son to Tamar, so she dresses as a prostitute, tricks Judah, and is eventually impregnated by him. The father keeps the son’s name alive. Later in the Bible, Ruth must submit to a similar ritual of Levirate marriage by a relative of her late husband, a descendant of Judah and Tamar. The relative refuses, allowing Ruth to marry Boaz. This ancient practice comes up regularly in the Bible.
What if the brother refuses to marry and have children with the widow? In the Bible he must submit to a rather humiliating ritual. The widow removes a sandal from his foot, spits before him, and says, “This shall be done to the man who refuses to build his brother’s house” (Deuteronomy 25:9). The ritual is called halitza and is meant to shame the reluctant brother.
In Biblical times when a man could have more than wife, the obligation to marry his brother’s widow was encouraged. Of course, the widow had little say about this. The Rabbis of the Talmud later outlawed Levirate marriage. They required the widow and the brother go through the ritual of halitza. The courts even had a special sandal created for this purpose. Some may remember the 1972 Israeli movie I Love You Rosa, about a widow forced to wait for her eleven-year-old brother-in-law to come of age. In Orthodox Jewish practice, the widow may become stuck, dependent on the action of her late husband’s brother, who can refuse to participate or even demand money to release her.
Outside the Orthodox community, these laws are usually ignored. There is a deep sense that to tie a widow to a brother-in-law is ethically wrong, and that a widow without children should be free to marry. Nonetheless, there are consequences to ignoring this ancient law. If she is not properly released, the status of her future children in Jewish law might be affected.
Even if a law has fallen out of practice, we can certainly learn some very relevant insights from it. Here we have a case of a brother expected to keep his brother’s name alive. Brothers [and sisters] owe something to one another. Jewish law speaks of indentured servitude, where a person must sell himself or herself into slavery for an unpaid debt. Family members, beginning with his or her brother or sister, have an obligation to redeem him or her. In fact, the Hebrew word for redemption, goel, originally meant goel hadam, “blood redemption.” It was the obligation of one’s blood relatives, beginning with one’s siblings, to redeem such an indentured servant.
Let me share one of my favorite Biblical teachings on the subject. “A friend is devoted at all times, but a brother is born for trouble” (Proverbs 17:17). I understand this to mean that friends are there for good times. But when we are in trouble, our brother or sister, our flesh and blood, is the first we need to turn to. Siblings help siblings. Perhaps that is the meaning of one of the most quoted verses from the book of Psalms. “How good and how pleasant for brothers to dwell together” (Psalms 133:1).
The ancient ritual of Levirate marriage may have fallen out of practice. But we can still learn from it.


“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt.”  (Deuteronomy 25:17)

There is a Buddhist tale of a monk and a gladiator who are trying to cross a narrow bridge at the same time.  They meet in the middle.  The gladiator says, “Back up.  I am bigger and stronger than you.  Let me pass.”  The monk says, “I will back up.  But only if I can show you both heaven and hell in one minute.”  The gladiator draws his sword, “Why you arrogant fool!  How dare you defy me?  I ought to kill you.”  The monk replies, “That is hell.”  The gladiator, taken aback, puts down the sword and apologizes.  “I am so sorry.  I should not have lost my temper.  I will back up and let you pass.”  The monk replies, “That is heaven.”

The moral of the story is that we all have a little heaven and a little hell within us.  We are all a mixture of good and evil.  As the Rabbis describe it, every human is born with a yetzer hatov “the good inclination” and a yetzer hara “the evil inclination.”  They constantly struggle within us.  Sigmund Freud, born of Jewish parents but a confirmed atheist, taught a similar idea.  Life is a constant struggle between the id (the inner drives, often unconscious) and the superego (the voice of conscience we learn from our parents and out community.)  Our ego tries to balance the two.

There is a long argument among both religious and philosophical thinkers whether humanity is naturally good or naturally evil.  The Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Hobbes taught that humans in nature are selfish, that without a strong government life would be a war of all against all, and that life in the wild is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  Another Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau taught that humans in nature are good, that it is society that corrupts them.  He introduced the idea of the noble savage and taught “man is born free and everywhere is in chains.”

Religious thinkers are often equally divided.  Augustine of Hippo taught the notion of original sin, that humans have a sinful nature with roots in the sin of Adam and Eve.  On the other hand, many new age thinkers see humans as only good.  The rapper J. Cole has written, “You are perfect exactly as you are. With all your flaws and problems, there’s no need to change anything. All you need to change is the thought that you aren’t good enough.”

I love the Jewish idea that people are a combination of good and evil.  But is it true for everyone?  Are there psychopaths out there, people who are truly evil?  Should I be looking for the good in a Haman, Hitler, or Osama bin Laden?  Do mass murderers have any redeeming qualities?  What about people who flourish on sadism?  How should we consider them?

The final law in this portion teaches us to remember Amalek.  Amalek was far more than a nation who attacked the people Israel from the rear, deliberately targeting the weak and the lame.  In Jewish tradition, Amalek came to represent pure evil.  It is not simply a nation, but people who love cruelty and causing others to suffer.  Amalek, or evil, must be fought in every generation.  The Rabbis say in the Midrash regarding King Saul being compassionate to Amalek, “Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish says: Anyone who becomes compassionate when he should be cruel will ultimately become cruel when he should be compassionate” (Kohelet Rabah 7:16).  It is vital that we fight evil.

Perhaps those who commit mass murder have some kind of brain disease or grew up in deprived homes.  One can seek to understand their mindset.  Nonetheless, we must stand up to evil wherever it raises its head.  This includes dictators and despots who use their power to destroy their enemies.  This includes terrorists who seek political aims with no regard for human lives.  And sadly, it includes the many individuals who acquire weapons to commit acts of mass carnage.  Amalek is alive and well, not just in Biblical times but in our own time.


“No one misbegotten shall be admitted into congregation of the Lord, none of his descendants even until the tenth generation, shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord.”  (Deuteronomy 23:3)

This week’s portion contains more laws than any other in the Torah.  Many of these laws are beautiful, dealing with community and family life, creating a just society.  But some of the laws are difficult, even immoral when read with modern eyes.  Let us look at one such law.

In Judaism, we often use the term mamzer (plural mamzerim) to refer to a person who is dishonest or crooked.  But the word in the Torah has nothing to do with a person’s character.  It simply refers to the circumstances of one’s birth.  A mamzer is a person born of a woman who committed adultery or was the victim of incest.  It is different from the English term “bastard” which refers to a child born out of wedlock.  In the Torah, the term is more limited.  If a woman becomes pregnant from a man not her husband, the child is a mamzer, here translated “misbegotten.”  Such a child cannot marry a Jew of legitimate birth, even until the tenth generation.

Why does the Torah contain such a harsh law?  The Torah wants men to marry and become responsible for the children whom they sire.  But in a time before paternity tests, a man wanted to know that children were his biological offspring.  Therefore, the Torah created a rather harsh law for a woman who gives birth to a child whose father is not her husband.  One can understand the law within the context of its time, as difficult as it is for us today.

We have a law of the Torah that is clearly problematic.  We punish a child for the sins of the parents.  This is the reason why the Conservative Movement in Judaism, to which I am a member, has chosen never to apply this law.   Conservative (and certainly Reform) rabbis will simply ignore the law, not search out the lineage of a bride and groom, and if such a person does marry, the marriage is considered valid after the fact.   Orthodox rabbis have no such option.  They are bound by Jewish law.

From an Orthodox perspective, if a child is born a mamzer, they can only marry another mamzer.  (I can imagine an internet dating site, “mamzerim seeking mamzerim.”  It is a sad thought.)  So how do my Orthodox colleagues handle this issue?  The answer is that they bend over backwards never to apply the law in real life.  It is an example of how Judaism deals with painful laws, through finding ways to interpret them out of existence.

A famous case arose in Israel in 1972.  A brother and sister, Hanoch and Miriam Langer, were ruled mamzerim by the Israeli Rabbinic courts.  Their mother had never had a proper divorce from her first husband before remarrying and giving birth to them.  From a Rabbinic point of view, they were born of adultery and could not marry in Israel.  (Only Orthodox rabbis can perform weddings of Jews in Israel.)  It did not matter that they were proud Israeli citizens who had served in the Israeli army.  Only the circumstances of their birth mattered.  The case created a government crisis and the threat to introduce civil marriage in Israel.

This is where Rabbi Shlomo Goren, soon to become Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi, stepped in.  He carefully studied the case and found that the woman’s first marriage was to a man who had converted.  Perhaps the conversion had not been done properly.  If so, the woman was not really married the first time, did not need a Jewish divorce, and the children were not mazmerim.  Goren ruled that their births were legitimate and the siblings were allowed to marry in Israel.   Moshe Dayan attended Miriam’s wedding.  The case created some controversy, but also showed how far an Orthodox rabbi was willing to go to interpret a difficult law out of existence.

There are other examples of how the Rabbis attempted to interpret this law out of existence.  For example, if a woman gives birth when her husband is overseas for as long as a year, he is presumed to be the father and it was simply a long pregnancy.  The Rabbis were willing to ignore biology to reinterpret a difficult law.

All laws are promulgated in a particular time and place, and often our ethical standards have evolved since then.  Fortunately, the power of interpretation can be applied to any law.


“When you build a new house, then you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you should not bring any blood upon your house, if any man falls from there.”  (Deuteronomy 22:8)

This portion has more laws than any other in the Torah.  This year one law caught my eye.  When a person builds a house, they must put a parapet around the roof to prevent people from falling off.  Later Rabbinic law goes into detail about how tall and how strong the parapet must be.  As I read this, I think of the tragic story of someone leaning against the railing on the balcony and falling.  Each year several lives are lost in this horrible circumstance.  In Biblical times food was dried and other chores were done on the roof of a home.  The homeowner was responsible for everybody’s safety.

A similar law can be found in the book of Exodus.  If a person digs a hole and someone’s animal falls in, or worse, if a person falls in, the person who created the hole is responsible for damages.  Each of us is responsible for one another’s safety.  No one can say that they have a right to build a house with no parapet or they have a right to dig a hole.  Our rights end when they threaten the safety of our neighbors.

The message is clear for today as we struggle with the Corona pandemic.  We are responsible for one another’s safety.  And that raises the issue of wearing masks.  In the part of the country where I live, most people (but certainly not everybody) have been good about wearing masks when congregating in public places.  You cannot walk into any local supermarket or other store without a mask.  In other parts of the country, most people are not wearing masks.  What bothers me is people who claim that they have a right not to wear a mask, that requiring masks is a threat to their freedom.  It saddens me that the question of wearing masks has become a political issue.  Some things should be above politics.

Who decides whether wearing masks makes us all safer?  Our tradition teaches that when it comes to medical questions, one goes to medical experts.  Physicians who specialize in infectious diseases and public health officials should decide.  I am well aware that these specialists may disagree.  Some have questioned the necessity or effectiveness of masks.  But most experts say that a disease spread by air droplets can be limited when people cover their mouths and noses.  Until the experts say differently, wearing masks ought to be the norm.

What about the person who says I am one person?  I want my freedom, and my one mask is not going to make a difference?  There is a principle in ethical philosophy known as the tragedy of the commons.  It challenges the principle first formulated by Thomas Hobbes that we human beings live under a social contract.   The idea was first formulated by William Forster Lloyd, a British economist in 1833.  The idea was further developed by American ecologist and philosopher Garrett Hardin in 1968.  It raises the question, why should I cooperate with the social contract if I do not trust that others will?

The classic example is a pasture for grazing in the public domain.  Everybody agrees that only a certain number of animals should be allowed to graze, or else the pasture will be overused and destroyed.  One person decides to break the rules and go early in the morning to graze more animals.  He or she decides that it will be to their advantage to graze more animals, and if they do not, somebody else will.  One person may not make a difference, but if others learn that this person is breaking the rules, they decide to also break the rules.  Soon the pasture is gone.

How do we live in a world where some people decide to ignore the rules?  One person can be the carrier that makes numerous others sick.  But as the tragedy of the commons proves, one person sets a bad example for another, and before long the pandemic numbers are going up again.  If the experts say that masks are necessary to prevent the spread of a disease, then our tradition would teach the importance of wearing masks.  Like the building of a parapet on the roof, or like covering up a hole that we dig, we are all responsible for the safety of others.

“You shall not have in your bag different weights, a large and a small. You shall not have in your house different measures, a large and a small.” (Deuteronomy 25:13 -14)
I recently developed an introduction to ethics class online for Broward College. One section dealt with “business and professional ethics.” Let me quote the beginning of that section. “The phrase `business ethics’ sounds like an oxymoron. Ethics is about proper behavior between human beings. Business is about making money. How can the two fit together? In fact, the purpose of a business, most would say the only purpose, is to make money for its owners or stockholders. That is the reason businesses exist.”
There are people who believe that people must be ethical, but businesses must do whatever is necessary to make money. Businesses are not people. One of the greatest thinkers about capitalism and the business community was Adam Smith, who published The Wealth of Nations in 1776. He wrote of an “invisible hand” which guides society as people practice business. For example, suppose I want to visit my family in California. I am willing to spend a certain amount of money to make that trip. An airline offers me a plane flight for a certain price. If it is a high demand time like Thanksgiving, they will raise their price, and I probably will not go. An invisible hand causes me to pursue my interest and the airline to pursue its interest, and somehow business takes place. A capitalist society is a more complicated version of this idea.
Adam Smith was the first great thinker about capitalism. But he was also suspicious about unethical behavior by businesses. He cynically wrote, “People in the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance.” Even in the eighteenth century, Adam Smith saw how business can act unethically to make a profit. How much more so today can business cheat or deceive consumers?
The point I make in my class is that just as individuals must be ethical, so businesses must be ethical. They owe it not only to their shareholders, but their employees, their customers, and the public at large. Although my class, was secular, I learned the idea of business ethics from this week’s portion. The portion contains multiple laws on many subjects. But several of the laws deal with proper business ethics.
An example is the law quoted at the beginning of this message. It is forbidden to carry different weights and measures so that foodstuffs are not measured fairly for different customers. It is like the butcher who puts his thumb on the scale, charging more to a wealthier customer then a poorer customer. Similarly, we buy gasoline hoping that the pump has been calibrated properly and we are not being overcharged. Perhaps most important, any business deal involving buying and selling must be transparent. To turn back the odometer on a car before selling it is unethical (and illegal). But so is withholding information about an accident and other relevant information. Jewish law does not have the principle of caveat emptor “let the buyer beware.”
In a similar way, employees must be treated fairly. It is forbidden to withhold an employee’s wages and not pay in a timely manner. The Torah was written at a time where many workers were paid by the day, and they needed that daily wage to get food. If one hires a babysitter and then claims they have no cash, they will pay later, they are breaking Jewish law. Businesses should have an employee manual to lay out the rules, making sure that employees are treated fairly.
Finally, the portion forbids someone from removing a neighbor’s landmark. Jewish law interprets this to mean that one should not take away someone else’s ability to earn a living through unfair competition. The Talmud says that when each of us reaches the next world, we will be asked, “Were you honest in your business practices?” (Shabbat 31a) As we pursue our business and professional lives, we should ask ourselves that question.

“When brothers dwell together and one of them dies and leaves no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married to a stranger, outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall unite with her; he shall take her as his wife and perform the levir’s duty.” (Deuteronomy 25:5)
This portion contains more laws than any other portion of the Torah. They deal with multiple subjects, from helping the poor to protecting the community to kindness to animals. But the most frequent subject seems to be family life and family relations. What do we owe our family? Included in these many laws is the ancient tradition of Levirate marriage.
The Torah teaches that when a man dies and leaves no children, his widow is not free to marry anybody. The deceased’s brother must marry the widow and raise up children in the name of the man who died. That way the brother’s name will not be forgotten in Israel. This is called Levirate marriage. If the brother refuses, he must go through a rather embarrassing ceremony of release called halitza. He wears a special sandal which the widow removes from his foot. She spits in his face and says, “This is what is done to a man who will not build up his brother’s house.”
This law has fallen out of practice among non-Orthodox Jews. But in the Orthodox community and in Israel, it is still practiced. By law, a childless widow in Israel may not be married until her late husband’s brother formally releases her. This has been the theme of several movies. Two that I remember was the 1972 Israeli movie I Love You Rosa, and more recently the Hallmark Hall of Fame television movie, Loving Leah. (The Orthodox childless widow in the latter is played by Lauren Ambrose, currently starring as Eliza Doolittle in Broadway’s My Fair Lady.) I admit that if I were asked to supervise this ritual, I would not know how. I do not even have the special sandals. But the Orthodox Rabbinate in Israel has them.
I am glad that this tradition has fallen out of practice. But I can still learn from it. Perhaps the most important lesson is that the living brother sires a child, but the child is called by the name of the deceased brother. This was the problem in Genesis when Onan spilled his seed on the ground rather than having a son in the name of his deceased brother Er (see Genesis 38:9). The word “onanism” entered our vocabulary from this incident. In my mind, it proves that one can be a father without being a biological father. We also know from the story of the surrogates in Genesis that one can be a mother with being a biological mother. These are profound Biblical lessons, particularly for couples dealing with infertility and adoption.
Nonetheless, I believe there is even a deeper lesson in this strange, rather archaic law. Brothers and sisters have obligations to one another. We are meant to be our “brother’s keeper.” Even if we no longer have children in the name of a deceased brother, we need to be there in times of trouble. We do not necessarily need to love our siblings, nor even be best friends. But we need to be a presence in their lives. I see it as a way of honoring our parents.
There is a classic Jewish story that makes this point. Long ago there were two brothers who shared a farm on a hill. They worked and split everything equally. One brother was married with a number of children. The other brother was a bachelor who lived alone. One night the bachelor brother said to himself, I have one mouth to feed while my brother has to take care of an entire family. In the middle of the night he carried a large bag of grain to his brother’s storehouse. Meanwhile, the married brother said, I have a wife and children to care for me in my old age. My brother has nobody. In the middle of the night he also carried a large bag of grain to his brother’s storehouse. So it continued for several nights. Then one night the two brothers went out at the same time and ran into each other. When they realized what was happening, they embraced.
The Rabbi’s taught that this story is the meaning of the verse henei ma tov u’ma nayim, shevet achim gam yachad “here is what’s good and what’s pleasant, for brothers to dwell together (Psalms 133:1). According to tradition, because two brothers cared for one another, God chose that mountain top to build His Temple.

“You see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and would take her for your wife.” (Deuteronomy 21:11)
I am finally watching Game of Thrones, going all the way back to the first season. I wanted to know what all the fuss is about. Currently I am half way through season three, so do not give anything away. The show is filled with gratuitous sex, gratuitous violence, cruelty, and unbearable situations – but the show is totally addicting. There was a scene in season two that made me think about this week’s portion. A group of women from the castle were locked in a room as the enemy laid siege to the city. A guard was appointed to protect the women, but his orders were to slay the women rather than allow them to be taken captive by the enemy.
Through much of history, when women were captured in war, they were raped and often murdered, or if allowed to live, sold into slavery. Men fighting a war were not expected to show compassion and self-control when meeting the women. The cruelty was considered their reward for going into battle. The beginning of this week’s portion comes as a reaction to this reality of war.
The Torah teaches that if a man sees a woman captive and desires her, he cannot take her for his own. He must wait one month. During that time, she would trim her hair, cut her nails, and put on the garbs of mourning. Only at the end of the month, the man was permitted to either marry her or release her. He could not sell her into slavery. Of course, the hope was that during the month of mourning, when the passion of the battle has passed, seeing her with her hair and nails cut and wearing clothes of mourning, he would release her.
By contemporary standards, this law is outrageous. The Torah allows a man to take a female captive into his house and marry her at the end of a month. It goes against every ethical standard we believe in. But compared to the rape and pillage that was the norm in ancient times, the kind of warfare portrayed in Game of Thrones, this was certainly a step upwards. This is a perfect example of how the Torah moves in the direction of greater and greater ethical sensitivity. Many laws of the Torah may not meet contemporary ethical standards. But they are certainly a major step in the right direction.
This brings me to the controversy that fills the news today. Should we tear down Confederate statues? Should we rename streets whose names remind us of our less than ethical past? Should we condemn Thomas Jefferson, who penned the Declaration of Independence, because he was a slave owner? Should we judge the past by the ethics of today?
I do not want to give an easy answer. I can see how a Confederate statue would be an insult to the descendants of slaves. I can see how the name Dixie Highway, a major street running through African-American neighborhoods of Ft. Lauderdale, may be troubling to many people. If I were in Germany I would not want to look at a statue of Hitler, even if he was part of their history. But should we remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, who opposed slavery but opposed the north even more?
I think we are making a mistake if we judge the past by contemporary ethical standards. The Torah teaches that Noah was a righteous man in his generation. The Midrash comments that in his generation he was ethical, but in another generation, he would have been a nobody. Ethics develop, and what is ethical in one generation becomes improper in future generation. Fortunately, our ideas of right and wrong continue to evolve. Today, taking a captive woman as a wife would be an absolute wrong. But in Biblical times, it was a huge ethical leap forward. May our ethical ideas and ethical sensitivities continue to grow into the future.

“No one misbegotten shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord; none of his descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 23:3)
This portion contains more laws than any other in the entire Torah, seventy four altogether. Most deal with beautiful ideas from civil to criminal law and from family to ritual law. But now and again there is a law that is jarring to modern sensitivities, a law that we wish was not in the Torah. And yet sometimes the most difficult laws can give us the most important insights.
The portion speaks about a mamzer, translated here as “misbegotten.” In popular parlance the word mamzer is often used as a pejorative. (He is such a mamzer!) In truth, the word simply means a child born of incest, or where the mother commits adultery. It has nothing to do with character. The word mamzer does not mean a bastard, or a child born out of wedlock. A child born out of wedlock is totally legitimate by the laws of the Torah. A child born of incest, or where the mother commits adultery, is not considered legitimate. Such a child cannot marry a Jew of legitimate birth, even up to ten generations. A mamzer by the very circumstances of birth becomes tainted.
Later Jewish law taught that a mamzer can marry another mamzer or a convert to Judaism. I can see the single ads on Jewish dating sites. “Mamzer seeks fellow mamzer for dating and matrimony.” We can laugh about it, but in truth it is a very painful law. Children through no fault of their own become forever excluded from marrying within the Jewish community. For those who read James Michener’s famous novel The Source, there is a chapter about a child misbegotten who chooses to leave the Jewish community altogether.
In modern Judaism this law is particularly difficult. A married woman divorces but never gets a proper gett or Jewish divorce (also in this week’s portion.) She then remarries and has a child. Because she never properly divorced her first husband, the marriage is considered adultery and the child is a mamzer. The issue is real, particularly in the Orthodox Jewish community.
Non-Orthodox Jews ignore the issue. They claim that this law runs against a more fundamental value, that children should not be punished for the sins of their parents (also in this week’s portion.) Therefore they avoid stigmatizing the child and using the term “mamzer.” The law has fallen out of practice in the non-Orthodox community, even among Conservative Jews who claim to take Jewish law seriously. But we can learn from it.
Even in the Orthodox community which takes a more fundamentalist position on Jewish law, this particular law makes rabbis uncomfortable. They often try to interpret the law out of existence. For example, Jewish law is based on the assumption that if a woman gets pregnant, her husband is the putative father and the child is legitimate. (Secular law makes the same assumption.) Jewish law says this is true even if the woman’s husband has been out of the country as long as twelve months. It was simply a very long pregnancy. (see Shulchan HaAruch, Eben HaEver, Hilchot Periya u’Rvia, 4:14)
Modern Orthodox rabbis will attempt to legitimate a child by saying that a proper marriage never took place the first time around, and therefore the woman is not married and there is no adultery. They will try to find something improper about the first wedding. Obviously here is an example of a law on the books that raises serious ethical issues. Why would such a law, punishing the child for the sins of the parents, be in the Torah to begin with?
Allow me to suggest an answer. One of the values of the Torah is to get men to make a commitment to be present and help raise the children they sire. Today when so many dads abandon their children, we see the importance of fathers in lives of their children. In a day before paternity tests, fathers want to know that the children they are responsible for are truly theirs. Thus the Torah comes up with such a harsh law when a woman has a child with someone other than her husband.
Having said that, the law is clearly immoral and deserves to be interpreted out of existence. But perhaps it can serve as a reminder of the importance of fathers in their children’s lives.

“You shall not deduct interest from loans to your countrymen.” (Deuteronomy 23:20)
A few years ago in my doctoral studies I took a graduate seminar called “Shakespeare in Film.” I wrote my final paper on film adaptations of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and the portrayal of the Jewish moneylender Shylock. Many have claimed that the play proved that Shakespeare was an anti-Semite. I am not convinced that he was any more anti-Semitic than any other Englishman who lived during his time. After all, to put these famous words in the mouth of Shylock hardly seems anti-Semitic:
“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?” (3 1 55-63)
For those unfamiliar with the play, Shylock is a money lender. He has been deeply hurt when his daughter runs off with her Christian suitor and converts to Christianity. Shylock, already bitter, loans 3000 ducats to Antonio so that Antonio’s friend can court the lovely Portia. If Antonio does not pay back the loan, he must give Shylock “a pound of flesh.” The heart of the play is the court case with Portia disguised as a male lawyer. She gives her famous “quality of mercy” speech (Christian mercy versus Jewish justice.) In the end, Shylock loses his case and must convert to Christianity.
In Shakespeare’s time Shylock was often portrayed as a clownish figure with a red wig and a big nose. But times have changed. I watched four different film versions of The Merchant of Venice for my paper, including one starring Sir Lawrence Olivier and the more recent version starring Al Pacino as Shylock. In each case Shylock was portrayed more sympathetically. Unlike the original play, each of the four movies ended with a touch of hope for Shylock. I wrote my paper realizing that moderns have rediscovered the deep humanity of a character who began as a Jewish villain.
That brings me to our weekly Torah reading. The Torah teaches that Israelites are forbidden to charge interest to other Israelites on loans. Israelites could charge interest to foreigners. “You may deduct interest from loans to foreigners, but do not deduct interest from loans to your countrymen.” (Deuteronomy 23:21) This seems to give Jews permission to become moneylenders, one of the few professions they could practice in medieval Europe. This portion contains the roots of Shylock.
Why could Jews charge interest to non-Jews? Communities were separate, and loans to the non-Jewish community were made for business purposes. On the other hand, loans within the Jewish community were usually made because a person had become poor or their crops had failed. Under those conditions, Jews were not to make a profit off the misfortune of others. The idea of interest free loans became central to the Jewish understanding of their own community. Even today most Jewish communities have a Hebrew Free Loan organization that lends money without interest.
There are two types of loans. There are business loans, money which allows someone to start a business and make money. The Rabbis of the Talmud would later come up with a legal fiction known as a heter iska to allow the lending of money for businesses purposes. The lender could not charge interest, but he could take a share of the profits, making money off his money. Such business loans are at the heart of capitalism. But then there is a second type of loan – a loan made to a person in financial trouble. At the heart of the Torah is the idea that one should never make money off such a loan. Today, if we loan money to family or friends not as a business investment but out of need, we do not charge them interest.
Modern portrayals of Shylock sought to show the humanity of the Jewish moneylender. Studying the history of the Torah’s approach to money lending show the humanity with which Judaism views the lending of money.

“But you shall let the mother go, and take the young to you; that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days.” (Deuteronomy 22:7)
This portion contains more laws than any other. Each is worthy of its own spiritual message. This year I was drawn to a law toward the beginning of the portion, a law dealing with kindness to animals. If one comes across a nest with a mother bird sitting on eggs or protecting a baby bird, one should not take the eggs or the baby before the mother’s eyes. One must first send the mother away, in order to live a long life.
There are actually two different laws in the Torah which promise a reward of a long life. One is the Ten Commandments – “Honor your father and mother.” The other is the commandment to send away the mother bird. If one follows both of those laws, one should truly be blessed with a long life. And this brings me to the heretic rabbi in the Talmud, Elisha ben Abuya, known as Acher – “the other one.” I will be speaking briefly about him in my Rosh Hashana sermons. But to get a wonderful if fictional view of his life, read Milton Steinberg’s As a Driven Leaf.
According to the Talmud, Elisha ben Abuya witnessed a boy climbing up a tree to take the baby bird from its nest. His father reminded him to first send away the mother bird. The rabbi thought, what a long life this boy will live. He kept the commandment to honor his father and the commandment to send away the mother bird. Then tragedy struck. To the rabbi’s horror, the boy fell out of the tree and died. At that moment Elisa ben Abuya rejected his faith. He cried out leit din v’leit dayan – “there is no judgment and no judge.” The rabbi rejected his Judaism and became the best known heretic in the Talmud.
There is a story about Elisha ben Abuya riding a horse on Shabbat (forbidden by Jewish law) with Rabbi Meir, one of the greatest of the Talmudic rabbis, walking besides him. They arrived at the Shabbat boundary and Elisha said to Rabbi Meir, you need to turn back here. You cannot go further. Then Elisha kept riding. Rabbi Meir’s students challenged him saying, “How can you talk to a heretic like that man.” Rabbi Meir replied that he continued to learn from him. “It is like a pomegranate. I keep the seeds and throw out the rind.”
I meet many people who lose their faith when tragedy strikes. After the Holocaust some Jews chose to respond by becoming more religious, showing up in synagogue and observing Jewish practices. But many others responded in the opposite way. “If this can happen to me and my family, then there is no God, no laws, and no judgment.” Today we see the same phenomenon. For some people, tragedy brings them closer to religion. But for others, tragedy drives them away from religion. In a sense it is a shame, because often religion can give powerful support to people in times of sadness.
What answers can religion give to people like Elisha ben Abuya, to survivors of the Holocaust, or to people who had a tragic loss. There is a hint in the High Holiday liturgy. At a key moment during Musaf, we open the ark and chant the prayer u’ntaneh tokef. Anybody who has gone to synagogue on the Holidays knows parts of that prayer by heart. “On Rosh Hashana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die … Who shall be at peace and who shall go wandering.” It is a deeply emotional prayer that can shake a worshiper to the very core. The prayer ends with the words “Repentance, Prayer, and Charity can avert the severity of the decree.”
Look carefully at the words. It does not say that repentance, prayer, and charity will remove the severe decree. The religious life will not prevent evil. Rather, the religious life will avert the severity of the decree. When people live a religious life, when they believe that they are living in the presence of God, somehow it mitigates the suffering. God may not take away the pain. But belief in God seems to give pain a purpose. Religion can make sadness more bearable. If only Elisha ben Abuya had realized that lesson, he could have been the greatest rabbi of his time.


“If a man takes a wife and comes unto her, but she fails to please him because he finds something unseemly about her, then he writes her a bill of divorcement, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house.” (Deuteronomy 24:1)
My wife and I were enjoying the movie Ruby Sparks on television the other day. Written by and starring the young actress Zoe Kazan, it tells the story of a novelist suffering writer’s block, who creates a female character as an imaginary girlfriend. To his surprise, his creation comes to life. He is thrilled to have a girlfriend in his life, particularly one he can control through the very act of writing. But as you can imagine, having a person in your life you can control simply by sitting at a typewriter, soon becomes old. It is not a real relationship and eventually she must leave him.
The movie is cute, but the theme of creating a human is not new. In fact it reaches all the way back to Greek mythology and the story of Pygmalion. Pygmalion is a sculptor who creates a statue of a woman, and then falls in love with her. The story was adapted and moved to London at the turn of the twentieth century by the playwright George Bernard Shaw in his wonderful play Pygmalion. Most of us are familiar with the story from the hit Broadway musical adaption of Shaw’s play My Fair Lady. I remember listening to the original cast album over and over as a child. The cover showed the iconic drawing of Rex Harrison as a puppeteer manipulating his lady Julie Andrews. Above him, God is manipulating Harrison.
The theme of creating a person to manipulate is not simply a Greek myth nor a modern Broadway play. It has roots in Judaism. The Talmud teaches, “Rava created a man and sent it to Rav Zeira. Rave Zeira spoke to it but it would not reply. [Rav Zeira] said to it, you are the creation of a colleague. Return to your dust.” (Sanhedrin 65b) Tradition tells that Rava used the kabbalistic book Sefer Yetzera and manipulated the letters in God’s name to make the man. But the Talmud sees this as somehow improper. Later Jewish tradition would create the legend of the Golem, created by Rabbi Judah Lowe in Prague in the sixteenth century. Lowe used God’s name to control his creature, but eventually was forced to make him return to dust. (For a modern version of the Golem story see the 2001 movie Snow in August.)
Perhaps all these legends, plays, and movies are here to warn us. As human beings, we cannot create nor control other human beings. Too often we become involved in relationships with the plan to mold our partner into someone he or she is not. There is a scene in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov which says it all. Katerina proposes to her fiancée Dmitri with the words, “I want to save you from yourself.” How many of us become involved in relationships today, hoping to save our beloved from themselves? How many love others only to try to change them?
This week’s portion contains the laws of divorce. A man can divorce his wife in Jewish law if he finds an ervat devar “something unseemly.” (The Biblical law is clearly sexist; the Conservative Movement has searched for ways to modify this Biblical law.) The Rabbis argue whether “something unseemly” means a serious act like adultery, or something trivial like burning breakfast. In thinking about where marriages go bad, I want to give a modern meaning to the phrase “something unseemly.” Perhaps it means that one partner tries to change the other and does not succeed. Perhaps it means that one partner cannot mold the other into what they want. Perhaps one partner could not save the other from themselves.
Too often people marry or become involved in relationships in order to change their partner. They see only who they want their partner to be, not who they really are. Perhaps all these works of art – Ruby Sparks, My Fair Lady, Snow in August, and even The Brothers Karamazov are trying to warn us. We cannot create someone else; we can only accept others for who they are.


“The woman shall not wear that which belongs to a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for all who do so are abomination to the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 22:5)
The Torah is filled with separations – the Sabbath from the weekday, clean and unclean animals, Israel and the nations. One of the most difficult separations for moderns is gender, the separation between men and women. This week’s portion says that for men and women to wear each other’s clothing is not only forbidden, but an abomination. Based on this law, women in the Orthodox community avoid wearing pants. Even today in our Conservative synagogue, there is an ongoing debate whether women should be allowed to wear pants to Sabbath services.
Traditional Judaism demands a strict separation of gender. Men study Torah and participate in synagogue ritual. Women are responsible for the home and family. Women must not only dress differently from men; they must be extremely modest. Married women must keep their hair covered. If women choose to go to synagogue, they sit behind a barrier (mehitza) or up in a balcony. Men and women each know their roles. Or to quote Tevye, “Because of our traditions everyone knows who he (or she) is and what God expects of him (or her).”
In the more liberal Jewish movements including our own, one of the accomplishments is to remove these barriers and separations between men and women. Women can become rabbis or cantors, sit with men, lead the rituals, read from the Torah, and count in the minyan. Many synagogues mention not only the fathers but the mothers in the Amida, the central prayer of each worship service. Several people have already raised that issue in our own synagogue. We tend to see the world not in terms of men and women, but of people.
Of course, these changes reflect changes in society as a whole. We live in a world where women are pursuing professions once almost totally limited to men. Women are doctors, lawyers, Wall Street traders, even corporate CEO’s. And on the other side, men are nurses, teachers, social workers, personal assistants, and other jobs once mostly limited to women. In a generation, the world has moved from gender separation to a kind of unisex. Most of us consider this a positive thing.
Even sexual identity has become more confusing. Chaz Bono will be a contestant on Dancing with the Stars. Born female as the daughter of Sonny and Cher Bono, Chaz transitioned to a male. He is one of many transgender individuals, many of whom are Jewish and active in synagogue life. It is natural when we see an individual to classify them as either male or female; it is not easy to understand someone whose sexual identity is ambivalent. Yet the Talmud already speaks about people whose sexual identity is unclear. Gay activists speak of being more welcoming to GLBT – gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people. All are created in the image of God.
The gender separation of the past has broken down. So was the Torah wrong? Is gender a bad thing? One of the ironies of our age is that our modern age has shown a huge interest in kabbalah – the Jewish mystical tradition. And kabbalah is gender conscious to an extreme. Kabbalah teaches that God is manifest in the world in ten sephirot – aspects of divine reality. These sephirot form a pattern. Some are clearly male. Others are clearly female. And others seek to find the balance between the male and the female. Kabbalah teaches that the world is often off-balanced, and must be corrected by moving towards the male or the female aspects of reality.
Many feminists have taught that women’s involvement in public life does not mean unisex. Feminist thinker Carol Gilligan wrote a book called In a Different Voice. Perhaps the Torah is trying to teach us that men and women each speak with their own voice, and only when both are heard will the world stay in balance.



“When you go forth to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive…” (Deuteronomy 21:10)

What a worthy portion for us to read in our synagogue this particular week. The portion begins with the words “when you go forth.” Of course, it is speaking of going forth to war. But we could generalize it: what does it mean to go forth from one place to another? For this is the Shabbat our congregation is going forth from the old building to the new.
This week we hold Shabbat services in our new home. Friday evening we will march the Torahs over, put up a mezuzah, and formally dedicate our new building. Of course it is a bittersweet time. We have been in our old building since 1974; we have seen the highs and lows of congregational life. But Hurricane Wilma in 2005 was the beginning of the end of our wonderful old building. Thanks to the generosity of the city of Tamarac and of many of our members, we now have a beautiful new home.
There is another portion of the Torah that also contains the words “go forth.” Parshat Veyetze speaks of Jacob going forth from his old home to his new home. As he crosses the border, he has a dream of a ladder with angels going up and down. The Midrash asks the question, should not angels go down from heaven and back up. Why up and down? According to the Midrash, one set of angels leaves him as he leaves one place, and new set of angels joins him in the new place. (Genesis Rabba 68:12) Applying it to us, perhaps we have one set of angels in our old building who will be leaving us, and another set of angels in our new building who will be joining us.
I find this to be a beautiful idea. There was a set of angels who accompanied us for thirty-six years in one building, but now their work is finished. Now a new set of angels has been assigned to us. This recognizes the spiritual side of moving into a new building. After all the book of Psalms teaches, “Unless the Lord builds a house, they labor in vain who build it.” (Psalms 127:1) God was a partner in building our building. And if you do not literally believe in angels, use the term “spiritual forces.” In the old building there were certain spiritual forces at work, and as we enter our new home there will be new spiritual forces at work.
What are the spiritual forces (angels) I see at work in our new building? First there is the spiritual force of tradition. What Jews do in synagogue is a continuation of what they have done for one hundred generations. Sure there are changes. My grandfather would not understand women reading from the Torah, he may have difficulty with the Sephardic (Israeli) pronunciation of our prayers, but he would certainly recognize the melodies of our High Holiday services.
There is the spiritual force of community. We are part of a community of Jews gathering in similar buildings all over the world. We recognize that a synagogue is a place where people join with other people for strength and support through both happy and sad times.
There is the spiritual force of social action. Synagogues do not simply exist as islands cut off from the greater world. Each synagogue has its own particular role to play in tikkun olam, perfecting this world as a kingdom of God.
There is the spiritual force of healing. Human beings come to us who are broken, whether from the loss of a loved one, illness, sadness, or disappointment. We are here to give strength and support.
Finally, there is the spiritual force of teaching – or to use the classic Hebrew term, Torah. People come into the building with the question, what does God want us to do? To be a Jew is to struggle with God’s Torah.
These are some of the angels who will be present in our new building – the spiritual force of tradition, community, social action, healing, and of course Torah. As we go forth from an old building to a new, may we learn to appreciate the presence of these angels among us.


“You shall not pervert the judgment of the stranger, nor of the orphan; nor take a widow’s garment as a pledge;. But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you there; therefore I command you to do this thing.”

(Deuteronomy 24:17-18)

Senator Edward Kennedy died this morning. With his death the Senate lost the last of a powerful political dynasty as well as one of the most passionate spokesmen for liberal causes in the America. I remember hearing speak at a Rabbinical Assembly convention in Boston a few years ago. His age was showing but his passion and vision was not diminished. Most the rabbis in attendance cheered strongly for him; they shared his liberal vision for America. May his memory be for a blessing.
I often wonder if a political leader from the other side had spoken, would rabbis have cheered as hard. Is there room in Judaism for a more conservative view of American politics? The Republican Jewish Coalition is a distinct minority among Jews (although many of my friends are members.) Orthodox Jews often vote with the conservative side. But for most non-Orthodox Jews, in a trend going back to Roosevelt, support is for the political left. According to a recent article in our local newspaper, this has profoundly affected the politics here in Broward County, Florida. As the large condominium complexes that dot our county are losing Jews, the Democrats can no longer count on an automatic majority.
Jews outside the Orthodox community tend to vote left. But there is an interesting question – is Judaism left? Or is Judaism more right wing and conservative than most Jews? Reading this week’s portion, the Torah seems to be leaning to the left. There is a deep concern for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the landless, the stranger, and anybody not able to provide for themselves. Land owners must leave the corners of their crops and any gleanings for the poor. Creditors cannot charge interest for loans. Wage earners must be paid on time. A creditor may not enter a debtor’s home to take security. Over and over there is a concern for the needy and the poor.
Not only must the poor be cared for, but it must be done in a way that protects their dignity. The Talmud teaches that if one is used to a horse to ride on and a slave to run before them, the givers of charity must provide these. The great sage Hillel could not find a slave to run before a certain poor person, so he ran three miles himself. (Ketubot 67b)
Nonetheless, it appears there is a limit to charity. First there is difference between charity (tzedakah) funds to care for someone and using government money. In many European countries people receive cradle to grave care, often placing a huge tax burden on working people. History has proven that a perfect socialist system, where the community provides everything, as been a failure, whether in the former Soviet Union or on Israeli kibbutzim. There has to be a limit to providing for the needy.
The same section of Talmud that speaks of Hillel’s generosity also teaches, “We are obligated to provide for the poor, we are not obligated to make the poor rich.” (Ketubot 67b) The person who is used to gold must make do with silver; the person used to silver must make do with copper. (Tosefta Peah 4:11) The right has a point when they claim that the more government provides for the poor, the less motivation there is for the poor to achieve self-sufficiency. From a Jewish perspective, the highest form of charity is to provide but to give someone a job or help them start a business so they can provide for themselves. The goal is not government welfare but self-sufficiency. The right is correct that there must be a limit to government largesse.
Having said that, even the most conservative members of the Republican Party do not seek a society with no safety net at all. The right speaks of freedom and capitalism, but in this system there will always be people who cannot provide for themselves. No one wishes to see the poor, the elderly, and the sick, out fending for themselves in the street.
So what is the Jewish view? Is the Torah left or right? The answer is yes. Society does have an obligation to care for the poor. Society also has an obligation to encourage the poor to become self-sufficient. God is neither a Democrat nor a Republican. God is a loving parent who constantly struggles with the question – how much should I provide for my children and how much should I leave my children to fend for themselves?


“They shall say to the elders of his town, this son of ours is disloyal and defiant, he does not listen to our voice. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” (Deuteronomy 21:20)
Let us begin with a strange law, a law so difficult the Rabbis of the Talmud interpreted it out of existence. The Torah speaks of a stubborn and a rebellious son who does not listen to the voice of his mother and father. He is taken to the elders at the gates of the city, and there he was stoned to death. (Parents raising teenagers are often tempted by this law.)
The Talmud carefully studies the law. It then concludes, “There never was such a stubborn and rebellious son, and there never will be. It is written in the Torah so that we will study and receive a reward.” (Sanhedrin 71a) R. Jonathan disagrees, saying there was such a son who was put to death and he sat on his grave. But the majority view, and the accepted view of Jewish tradition, is that putting to death a stubborn and rebellious son could never happen.
How did the Rabbis manage to interpret a law of the Torah totally out of existence? The answer is by what modern scholars call hermeneutics, the careful reading and interpretation of a Biblical text. The text says that the stubborn and rebellious son does no listen to the voice of his mother and father. The word voice is written in the singular. In other words, the mother and father must be speaking with one voice. But it is impossible for a mother and father to speak with precisely the same voice; if nothing else, the pitch and timbre are different. So the law could never be applied in real life.
Some would see such Rabbinic hermeneutics as ridiculous, the kind of sophistry that causes people to make fun of Rabbis. Who cares if the word voice is written in the singular or the plural? On the contrary, I find the Rabbinic argument exceedingly clever. Here was a law from the Torah that the Rabbis did not like. They needed a way to interpret it so that it remained on the books but was never applied in real life. And they found such a way. Only if the father and mother speak in precisely the same voice is the stubborn and rebellious son guilty. And in real life that could never happen.
I would be the first to recommend to parents that they make an effort to speak in the same voice. Children become experts at a very young age at playing their parents off one against the other. “But mommy said it was okay.” “Daddy said I could buy this.” Consistent parenting is an ideal that moms and dads should strive for. But in real life it rarely happens. Mommies and daddies do speak with different voices. In fact, men and women speak in different voices. And perhaps that is not a bad thing.
Today there is much discussion of gender. Is there a difference between men and women? Now that women can be ordained as rabbis (at least outside of Orthodoxy), does a woman bring a different perspective to the rabbinate? For that matter, do women lawyers or doctors bring a different voice to their professions? Now that a woman came so close to receiving the Democratic nomination for president, and another woman was picked as the Republican nominee for vice president, does it make a difference? Do women speak in a different voice than men? And do they add a different perspective?
Feminist scholar Carol Gilligan published a groundbreaking book in 1982 called In a Different Voice. In the book she argued that girls use a different type of moral reasoning than boys. While boys tend to see moral issues in terms of rules and principles, girls tend to see such issues in terms of relationships. (Of course, whenever one speaks about questions of gender, one is painting with a very broad brush. Every man and every woman is an individual; some mothers are more father-like and some fathers are more mother-like.) But according to Gilligan, speaking in broad general terms, men and women do speak in a somewhat different voice.
I believe that it is part of God’s gift to the world that there are two genders, and that men and women often balance each other out. I am thrilled to have female rabbis in our community because I believe they have insights which balance out us male rabbis. For too many years Judaism only heard male voices. And I was lucky enough to be raised by a father and a mother. They often spoke in a different voice. We live in a society that needs to hear both male and female voices.



“A man takes a wife and possesses her. She fails to please him because he finds something obnoxious about her, and he writes her a bill of divorcement, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house.” (Deuteronomy 24:1-2)

This week’s portion speaks of divorce. In particular, it teaches that if a man divorces his wife and she marries another man, her first husband is forbidden ever to take her back. The question that jumps out at me is, if the Torah sees marriage as so vital, why does it permit divorce at all.
I discussed this issue at length in my book God, Love, Sex and Family. Here is a short selection from that book. (As you read this selection, think about the question – which of the two views of divorce is most prevalent today? And is that healthy for society?)
There are two views of divorce, corresponding to two views of marriage. Much of our legal history has been an interplay between these two views.
One opinion sees marriage as an institution ordained by God and meant to last for a lifetime. This view would accept the New Testament saying, “What therefore God has brought together let no man put asunder.” (Matthew 19:6) At its most extreme, people who hold this view would forbid divorce altogether. If that was not practical, they would at least limit it to the most extreme grounds such as adultery, cruelty, bigamy, habitual drunkenness, or desertion. Such divorces would proceed in these limited cases only when one partner finds fault with the other. Under the influence of early Christianity which permitted divorce only for adultery, this was the way most divorces were handled by the civil law until the last couple of decades.
The second opinion sees marriage as a contract between two parties for their own personal self-fulfillment. Like any other contract, the marriage ought to be voidable at the will of the parties involved. There would be no need to search for fault in these cases; irreconcil¬able differences would be sufficient grounds to terminate a marriage. By making no fault divorce a possibility, this view removes the litigation and bitterness that so often accompanied divorces when “fault” must be proven. At the most extreme, proponents of this view would remove the government from any role in divorce proceedings except the administra¬tive function of recording the divorce action. Just as two individuals can get married with a minimum of government interfer¬ence, so can two individuals divorce at their own initiative.
Thus, we see two extreme points of view with allowances for some degrees of moderation on both sides. One extreme sees marriage as permanent and unbreakable. In theory this is the view of the Catholic Church, which forbids divorce altogether. (The ability to annul marriages gives the Catholic Church an escape route by allowing the Vatican to cancel an untenable marriage by saying no true marriage ever took place.) The view that marriage is permanent and unbreakable can be moderated by allowing divorce for certain limited grounds, in particu¬lar adultery. Still, advocates of this approach tend to take a view of society that sees a stable family structure as more important than individual rights and happiness.
The other extreme view sees marriage as a mere contract which can be rescinded by mutual consent. To this view, there ought to be no more stigma attached to divorce anymore than there would be if two people dissolved a business partnership. If a marriage is not working, let people go there separate ways with no questions asked. This view is moderated by those who believe that marriage must be more than a mere contract, particularly when young children are involved. In such a case there ought to be some reasonable grounds such as irreconcilable differences before a marriage can be terminated. Still, proponents of this view would advocate for a simple, no fault divorce procedure attainable by mutual consent. Advocates of this approach tend to take a view of society that see individual rights and self-fulfillment as more important than family commitments.
Accordingly, the ongoing tension of family commitments versus individual rights has played itself out in the history of divorce in America. Nonetheless, there must be a middle ground where a balance is found between the need for family stability and the respect for individual rights. This is where I turn to my own tradition. Judaism, when viewed with a historical perspective, has marked out precisely this middle ground on the complex issue of divorce.



“You shall not sow your vineyard with a second kind of seed, else the crop – from the seed you have sown – and the yield of the vineyard may not be used. You shall not plow with an ox and an ass together. You shall not wear cloth combining wool and linen.” (Deuteronomy 22:9-11)

This portion has more laws than any other portion in the Torah. The laws deal with such a variety of subjects that it is impossible to pin down one theme. Some deal with family life such as the law of the stubborn and rebellious son or the law of divorce. Some deal with ethical maxims such as returning lost objects or caring for the widow and the orphan. Some deal with ritual matters like not mixing seeds or wearing clothing with wool and linen. Much of the portion is highly concerned with ethical issues, treating every human being as infinitely precious in the eyes of God. And yet, some of the laws are unethical such as the commandment to cut off the hand of a woman who touches a man inappropriately.
How are we moderns to relate to all these laws? Are they obligatory today? Should we be checking our clothing to make sure that there is no mix of animal products (wool) and plant products (linen)? (Fortunately it says nothing about polyester.) In a broader sense, does the word “Torah” mean law, as many translate it? Or does it mean teaching, as I prefer to translate it?
In the Orthodox world, these are God’s laws, and they are binding. In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates asked the question, “Is something good because the gods say it is? Or do the gods say it is good because it is?” From an Orthodox perspective, the law is good because God says it is. The law is the law, and as Moses put it in a well-known Talmudic passage, “Let the law split the mountain.” From an Orthodox perspective, the answer is simple. “God said it, I must do it. Period!”
A secularist would disagree. These laws are man-made, perhaps slightly more progressive than the Code of Hammurabi, but no different in essence. Man-made laws are enforced by humans and can be overturned by humans. We can certainly learn from these laws and gain insights into how an ancient society organized itself. But these laws are not binding. In our own day of individual autonomy, when Jews turn to civil law in the various lands where they live, the traditional Biblical code of conduct has no binding force. And certainly from a secularist perspective these laws may be wonderfully insightful, but they have nothing to do with God.
So we seem to have two choices. The laws are God-given, Orthodox, and binding. Or the laws are man-made, secular, and optional. Is there a third choice? I believe the answer is yes. On this issue like many non-Orthodox rabbis who love tradition, I turn to the brilliant work of the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig.
Rosenzweig was an amazing man. Growing up in an assimilated home, he almost converted to Christianity. He decided to give Judaism one more chance, attending services on Yom Kippur in a little Orthodox synagogue in Berlin. There something touched him and he began to explore Judaism. Together with Martin Buber, he translated the Bible into German and established a lehrhaus, a center for adult Jewish learning. He wrote his great book of Jewish philosophy, The Star of Redemption, on postcards from the front in World War I. And as his body was failing from Lou Gehrig’s disease, he kept teaching and writing until the end of his life.
Someone once asked Rosenzweig if he observed the law of wearing tefillin, phylacteries each morning. He answered, “Not yet.” The answer reflects one of his most powerful insights. There is a difference between a law and a commandment. A law sits in a book; a commandment speaks to our soul. The job of a Jew is to look at the laws and seek to turn them into commandments, something that binds us to God.
Rosenzweig’s insight teaches us how to read this week’s portion. These are laws that grew out of the Jewish encounter with God. Right now they sit in a book. Our job is to turn as many of them as possible into commandments, teachings that touch our very souls. They are laws; we must make them into commandments.



“The first son that she bears shall be accounted to the dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out in Israel.” (Deuteronomy 25:6)

Infertility is a major issue, particularly as more of us delay marrying and have children later in life. Science has discovered ways to borrow sperm, borrow eggs, even borrow a womb. The Catholic Church has condemned these procedures as opposed to natural law. From my perspective as a rabbi and a frequent counselor of infertile couples, can these methods ever be justified?
Allow me to share some thoughts from my book God, Love, Sex, and Family:
The Torah teaches that God commanded Moses to take a census of the people Israel “who were registered by their clans of their ancestral houses.” (Numbers 1:18) The Biblical commentator Rashi makes the comment that this means everyone should know their genetic lineage. The question of lineage profoundly affects the religious view of the new reproductive tech¬niques as well as adoption.
When a baby is born, part of that baby’s identity as a human being is his or her genetic background. Such lineage may not be the most important factor in a child’s identity; the mentor who raises the child is more important than the progenitor who sires the child. (Baba Metzia 2:11) Nonetheless, one cannot ignore bloodlines. A child’s genetic heritage gives that child his or her physical appear¬ance, intelligence, native talents, and unfortunately sometimes, a predispo-sition to certain diseases and conditions. It is part of the child’s very being. Genetic material also gives the child a connection with (usually unknown) biological siblings, and always creates the real possibility of accidental incest. The fear of incest is one major reason many religious leaders of all faiths are reluctant to approve donor gametes.
In my own religious tradition, many rabbis forbid the donation of sperm, eggs, or a womb because of this great emphasis on determining proper lineage. For example, by Jewish law a woman must wait three months after a divorce before remarrying; if she becomes pregnant before the waiting period has elapsed, paternity cannot be clearly established. According to traditional Jewish law, one’s status as a Jew is decided by the biolog¬ical mother. Other examples are one’s status as a Kohen, Levi, or Yisrael, the three tribal groupings of the Jewish people, which is decided by the biological father. Similarly, a person is either kasher (fit) or a mamzer(illegitimate) based on the genetic lineage.
In the case of reproductive techniques, we are therefore faced with a classical dilemma of two conflicting religious values. On the one hand, there is the primary commandment to “be fruitful and multiply.” On the other hand, we are similarly commanded to establish proper lineage for a child on both the mother’s and the father’s side. Can the issue of lineage be overlooked to allow a couple to fulfill the mitzvah of procreation? Which consideration takes precedence?
I have always contended in my counseling that the issue of lineage is secondary to the issue of procreation. Having a baby is central to the religious view of life. Establishing proper lineage may be good practical advice; it is important to a child’s self-esteem and possibly to his or her medical condition to know where he or she comes from. Nonetheless, the law to establish a proper lineage is not so vital that it ought to prevent an infertile couple from pursuing the new reproductive techniques. Given the choice between no child and a child whose maternal or paternal lineage is unknown, I would opt for creating the child.
In fact, there is biblical precedent for ignoring facts of lineage in establish¬ing legal paternity. According to the law of levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5-10), if a man dies childless, his brother is expected to raise children in the name of the deceased brother. One brother is the sperm donor; the other is the legal father. This case implies that the true father is not the progenitor but the one who gives his name and values to the child. We can draw upon this example as a precedent for permitting artificial insemination with donor sperm. There are similar precedents to permit donor eggs and even surrogate motherhood.
Infertile couples who are considering unconventional medical procedures such as those discussed above should have the support and blessing of the religious community. Coping with their own infer¬tility already imposes burdens on them; their suffering should not be exacerbated by community censure.



“You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land.”
(Deuteronomy 24:14)

I saw a fascinating movie this week called Dirty Pretty Things. Set in London, it shows the world of illegal immigrants and others living at the fringes of society. The story revolves around a doctor from Nigeria, now forced to drive a taxi by day and work in a seedy hotel by night. He chews medicinal roots to stay awake. He befriends a young Turkish woman who works as a hotel maid, and then in a sweat shop. The story takes off when the doctor discovers some shady happenings in the hotel.
One scene in particular greatly moved me. Someone asks the doctor, AWho are you people?@ He answers rather sadly, AWe are the people you don’t even notice. We are the ones who drive you places, who clean up after you.@ They are the ones who do the work that most of us do not want to do. Every society has those living on the fringes, those who pick our vegetables, clean our homes, sew our clothes, do much of the work many of us do not want to do. And we barely notice them.
In this week’s portion we read more laws than any other portion in the Torah. They cover a variety of topics, both ethical and ritual, with no systematic order nor clear organization. They call for the people Israel, once they enter the land, to be a holy nation. And of course holiness is to uphold the highest ethical standard of behavior. Central to that vision is how society treats those living on the fringes.
There are many such laws mentioned in the portion. Employers may not exploit a day laborer who depends on this wage to support himself or herself. A creditor may not enter a private home to take clothing belonging to the debtor. A runaway slave may not be forcibly returned to his owner. The body of a criminal executed may not be left out to be mocked overnight. And of course, special care must be taken for the widows and the orphans, those without clear means of support.
The essence of these laws is that we are to see all our fellow human beings, even those on the fringes, as created in the image of God. All have a fundamental dignity and deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. Most important, we need to see the others, the people we do not even notice.
Many of the people who read this message are in well-paying, highly respected professions. We are the managers in the corporate world, the physicians in the hospital, the lawyers in the office buildings, the professors on the campuses, the clergy in the synagogue and church. Do we even notice the support people who help us do our job? How do we treat the secretaries and other clerical workers, the health workers and technicians, the legal aids and couriers, the graduate students and teaching assistants, the religious school teachers? There is certainly a hierarchy out there. And equally important, how do we treat those on the bottom of the chain of authority, the food servers and maintenance workers and janitors? Do we even notice them? My question to those in the professional world is, do you know the name of the person who cleans your office?
The Torah is teaching us that a society rises or falls based on how it treats those on the fringes. For years I have been giving advice to young people seeking a marriage partner. I have said, “Look at your dates. How do they treat subordinates? Not their boss but their employees. How do they treat the shop keeper in a store, the waitress in a restaurant, the doorman in a building? This will tell you far more about their values than hours of discussion about politics.”
The movie I saw this week moved me not simply because it was a dramatic story with good acting, but because it showed another side of a beautiful city, London. It is the side tourists do not want to see. But we need to see those on the fringes. For we cannot pretend to love God and ignore any of God’s children.



“You shall not have in your bag diverse weights, a large and a small.”
(Deuteronomy 25:13)

I received an exciting offer from a book publisher. Would I be interested in writing a chapter on family life for a new book soon to be published? The book would be an anthology of essays by prominent speakers and writers on family issues. I asked about royalties, and the publisher promised the standard royalty structure divided between the authors. I asked if there was a cost to me to participate, and they said “no!”
Then I received the paperwork. They were thrilled to publish my work. My only commitment was to buy a large number of books at a set price, costing several thousand dollars. I quickly declined.
It was a classic case of “bait and switch.” Lead the customer on with one deal, and then before the deal was closed, change the terms to a less favorable deal. It is one of the many false business practices too prevalent today. A customer is presented with one product, and soon discovers that he or she is really getting a different product.
This week’s portion speaks about honest weights and measures. A merchant must have an absolutely honest scale. It is forbidden to have a weight or any other measuring device that cheats the customer. A customer must know precisely what he or she is buying from the merchant.
We live in a time of overwhelming corporate dishonesty. From Enron to Worldcom, from insider training to audits by accounting firms with a financial interest in shading the truth, many in the corporate world have broken their trust with the public. Unfortunately the stock market and the entire economy has been effected by these dishonest dealings. Too many businesses have been less than forthcoming in their operations. Behind this rash of corporate dishonesty is one of the oldest vices in the world, greed.
Greed is not simply a symptom of the large corporate world. Small businesses are hardly immune. How often does a business or a contractor promise more than he or she can realistically deliver? How often does a business hide defects in its product? How often does a business person sell without disclosing all the details? How often do businesses keep two sets of books in order to cheat the government? How often do businesses make a special offer, and then the customer finds that the product offered is not available? How often do hidden, undisclosed costs and overruns suddenly appear on the bill?
I discuss these issues with our young people, and they sometimes speak out against capitalism. They see these practices as proof that the entire economic system is corrupt and in need of replacement. I try to explain that perhaps capitalism is a bad system, but it is certainly better than any other. There is nothing wrong with people trying to earn a living selling goods and services. There is nothing wrong with people trying to get the best price the market will bear. But at least present any goods and services to customers with honesty and integrity from the very beginning. “No false weights” means that the customer knows precisely what he or she is receiving for the money..
Maimonides, the great medieval philosopher and authority on Jewish law, wrote “The punishment for dishonest measures is more severe than the punishment for forbidden sexual relations, for the latter is a sin against God only, the former against one’s fellow as well as God.” (Rambam Hilchot G’neiva 7:12, based on Baba Batra 88b, I want to thank Rabbi David Rosenn for pointing out this source to me.) In general Maimonides took a hard line on improper sexual behavior. But he believed that proper business behavior is even more important. Maimonides continued with the words that to cheat one=s fellow in business denies the very purpose of the Exodus from Egypt. We did not go from slavery to freedom to build a corrupt society.
Each of us should look at ourselves in the mirror on a regular basis and ask the question, “Was I absolutely honorable in my business relationships.”



“A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor a man a woman’s garment, , for all who do so are an abomination onto the Lord.”
(Deuteronony 22:5)

God=s first creative act was an act of separation. God separated light from darkness, day from night, the waters above from the waters below, water from dry ground. Ultimately God separated animals and birds, dividing the animals into clean and unclean animals. Finally God created humanity, separate from the rest of the animal kingdom, men and women, both created in the image of God.
One of the key ideas of numerous religions is imitatio deo, the imitation of God. We achieve holiness through our own acts of separation and distinction. Yet, one of the key areas of separation discussed by the Torah is terribly troubling to moderns – the separation of men and women.
This week’s Torah portion contains more laws than any other portion in the entire Torah. Hidden in this long list of legal obligations is the prohibition of wearing clothes usually worn by the opposite gender. Many traditionalists interpret this very strictly, forbidding women from wearing pants or men from wearing earrings. Others say that fashions change, and what was male or female attire in one generation will vary in a new generation. But the underlying idea of gender separation remains.
In the Orthodox Jewish community, this gender separation is taken quite literally. Men and women do not sit together during public prayer, and a physical barrier (mehitza) is erected between them. This has led to religious services being male only, with women as spectators behind the barrier, if they can see at all. Some creative Orthodox synagogues are experimenting with women only services, a move considered very controversial in Orthodox circles.
In the non-Orthodox community, we have removed this separation during prayer. Men and women sit together, and in most (but not all) non-Orthodox services, men and women participate together in synagogue ritual. This has led to a younger generation of women far more learned in Jewish traditions and rituals. But it also raises a serious question, is there any legitimacy to separation between the genders? Or should egalitarianism lead to unisex?
The issue recently came up in a rabbi’s internet discussion. As a Conservative synagogue, part of our bar mitzvah program is to teach boys how to wear tefillin, the leather boxes containing Biblical verses traditionally worn by Jewish men on their arms and foreheads during daily worship. My synagogue requires every bar mitzvah age boy to have tefillin and learn to put them on. Several rabbis on the internet raised the issue, if we are to require this of boys should we not require this of every girl who wants to become a bat mitzvah.
Certainly a girl who desires to put on tefillin is free to do so. (According to Rabbinic tradition, the medieval Biblical commentator Rashi had daughters who put on tefillin. I had one bat mitzvah girl in my synagogue who learned how and put on tefillin every morning throughout her high school years.) Nonetheless, it is one matter to teach an individual girl who desires to learn, quite another to require it of every girl.
Perhaps by requiring this mitzvah only of the boys, I am in a small way maintaining the gender separation required by the Torah. Those of us in the liberal movements who have embraced egalitarianism must ask the question: Do we still see a difference between men and women? Does the Torah requirement of gender separation still have any validity today?



“You see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and would take her as your wife.”
(Deuteronomy 21:11)

There are difficult laws in the Torah that are painful for us moderns to read. Yet, sometimes after further consideration, we can learn a profound, modern insight from such a law.
The Torah speaks of a soldier who goes to war, takes captives, and sees a beautiful woman whom he desires. He was not allowed to immediately have his way with her. She was given thirty days to mourn her family, cutting her hair and nails and dressing in the garments of a captive. Only after the thirty days was he permitted to take her as his wife.
The very notion of a man taking a captive woman as a wife against her will makes us cringe. Still, soldiers in ancient times and soldiers today have had their way with captive women. Men in the midst of war have always murdered, pillaged, and raped. It is a reality of human behavior, as we can see from events in the Balkins these past years.
When men go to war, the evil inclination often has a powerful hold on them. Soldiers in the heat of battle behave in a way that civilians at home would never consider doing. War brings out the ugly side of people.
The Torah, aware of this reality, tries to get the evil inclination under control. A man may desire a woman, but he cannot immediately have his way with her. He must wait thirty days, while she does things to diminish her beauty and show her mourning. At the end of the waiting period, there is a good chance that his desire will have died down altogether.
The Rabbis of the Talmud developed this idea further. If a man should bring home a wife from the field of battle, she will soon become a hated wife. (The next law in the Torah deals with a hated wife.) Their son will grow up to be a stubborn and rebellious son. (The law after that deals with the stubborn and rebellious son.) By allowing his evil inclination to get the best of him in the field of battle, he will start a series of events with tragic consequences.
The goal of the Torah is to teach us humans to control our evil inclination. Lust, violence, pride, gluttony, avarice, selfishness, anger, are all part of the human condition. Times of war brings out the worst of these emotions. That is why the Torah requires soldiers to control their lust, even in a battlefield situation.
Ben Zoma taught what I consider one of the most important Rabbinic teachings – “Who is Strong? Whoever controls their evil inclination.” (Avot 4:1) If we humans can learn self-control on the field of battle, how much more so in the office, the school, the board room, at home with our family.
Today our understanding of war has evolved. Even amongst the evils of battle their are rules laid out by the Geneva Conventions. The murder, plunder, and rape of civilians is unacceptable. Enemy soldiers, when captured, must be treated according to certain humane laws. We all know that in reality, soldiers do not always behave with such high ideals. Even today, people are overcome by their evil inclination.
This is one reason that the modern state of Israel has a doctrine called tahor haneshek – purity of arms. Israel is surrounded by enemies out to destroy her, and has fought too many wars in her short history. Yet every Israeli soldier learns the value of self-control and avoiding civilian casualties on the battle field. Teaching soldiers self-control as they go about their difficult task is an ancient idea. Yet it is still necessary today, for human nature has not changed.