Who is normal?

How do you say “motherhood and apple pie” in Hebrew? This was an exercise we were given in a translation class. The best idiomatic rendering among the responses was — “Tzionut” in quotation marks (pronounced while making quotation mark signs with two fingers on each hand). Tonight I thought about the phrase “motherhood and apple pie” – in the best sense of the idiom – when I attended (as a fly on the wall) the founding conference of a new group called “Beit Hillel” formed by rabbis and female scholars in the Israeli religious-Zionist sector.

You can read the founding principles on their website. They include the eternity of Torah, total adherence to halacha, seeing a religious value in the state of Israel (Tzionut without quotation marks), seeing themselves as an integral part of Israeli society, viewing modernity positively as long as it coincides with Torah, and promotion of an open public conversation that is measured and tolerant. I went as a curious observer because the conference took place in a hotel across the street from where I live in Kiryat Sanz, Netanya.

Some of the statements made at the conference have me ruminating about various issues. One of the women teachers whom I highly esteem, founder & head of a MO women’s beit midrash in Jerusalem, used the phrase “normal” to describe the weltanschauung of the new group. Does that mean other groups are normal in their own ways? Or that other groups are abnormal? She insisted she is not saying anything about other sectors, and I felt she was sincere. But the term does beg the question.

After the plenum, we had the option of three breakout groups: women in the public realm, democracy and halacha (they focused on one topic: the army), and education. Everything was recorded, and I assume the videotapes will be on the Beit Hillel website.

At the closing plenum one participant objected to the name “Beit Hillel” which he felt was a cliché. Someone else objected for the opposite reason – it is too strong a statement that “we are Beit Hillel and you others are Shamai.”

For me the most valuable insight was R. Yoel Ben-Nun’s derasha on the pericope in Shabbat 17a. After Hillel died, circa 20 CE, the school of Shamai attained ascendancy, during which Shamai passed “18 ordinances” in conformity with his ideas. The Talmud states that when he passed one of the ordinances, contrary to the opinion of Hillel, the day “was as grievous to Israel as the day when the golden calf was made.” R. Ben-Nun explained that in Beit Shamai’s view, the leniencies of B.Hillel led to a slippery slope ending in the golden calf (i.e.,if you are extreme in emulating Aaron’s peaceful ways, you may wind up as Aaron did with a golden calf). In the view of B. Hillel, the stringencies of Beit Shamai make an “egel” out of every halacha.

In the closing session they invited Eran Rolls, CEO Israel Building Center, to speak. He defined himself as wearing a transparent kippa. Eran had grown up in the extremely secular left Shomer Hatzair movement, and had started to become more involved in the synagogue in his moshav. He was deeply hurt when someone felt it was problematic for Eran to lead prayers because he was not shomer Shabbat. Eran called for greater sensitivity and openness.

From this conference I went to the other side of Netanya to pay a condolence call to the family of R. Shimon Gabai z”l, who worked tirelessly for several decades to bring traditional but non-observant Sefardim to Torah study and observance. He built a haredi school which has educated thousands of newly religious from Edot Hamizrah. It was 11 pm and there were still hundreds in the two separate (men/women) mourning tents. This left me pondering the following: an approach like that of the Beit Hillel organization probably wouldn’t resonate with the audience of Rav Gabai. It’s good that there are different strokes …. Now how do you translate that into Hebrew? (answer in comments below).
It will be interesting to see how the new Beit Hillel movement develops, and what happens to the movement Rav Gabai set in motion now that he is no longer at its helm.

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survived the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She and her husband appear in the documentary film about the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe, “Hidden Face.” She is available to lecture in Israel and in the US and can be contacted via www.cross-currents.com.

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13 Responses

  1. Mr. Cohen says:

    Shira Schmidt said:

    “He was deeply hurt when someone felt it was problematic for Eran to lead prayers
    because he was not shomer Shabbat. Eran called for greater sensitivity and openness.”

    Pri Megadim comment on Orach Chaim, Siman 55, Sif 4, Mumar:
    A Jew who converts out of Judaism to another religion [literally, converts to idolatry]
    or a Shabbat desecrator or one who sins spitefully, they are all like Gentiles,
    and they can NOT be included [as one of the ten men required to form a minyan for prayer].

    Rabbi Joseph ben Meir Teomim was born in 1727 and died in 1793.
    He served as Rabbi of Frankfort-on-the-Oder for 11 years.

    [YA – While others like Chasan Sofer, Chacham Tzvi, Netziv agree with the Pri Megadim, others do not. See Iggros Moshe OC1 #33. Additionally, all of those who argue that a mechlalel Shabbos cannot be included in a minyan speak of the mechalel Shabbos of the time of the Gemara. Many today accept the arguments of the Binyan Tzion and the Melamed Le-ho’il that contemporary mechalelei Shabbos are dealt with as stringently.

    Addendum, thanks to R Doron Beckerman. R Ephraim Greenblatt, shlit”a, in an oral response to him not printed in Iggros Moshe, reports considerable hedging on this issue, while still allowing issues of aivah to predominate. Those interested can find it in Shut Rivevos Ephraim, vol. 4 Orach Chaim # 149, available on Hebrewbooks.com]

  2. Eric Leibman says:

    I’m not even interested in talking about this until I see a list of the people who are involved and endorsing it.I always look to see who they are first. If it is nutty leftists, I move on. If it is trusted Gadol Hadorim, then I will look at it.

  3. Tzvi says:

    Translation of different strokes = “Shivim panim latorah.”

    It’s always nice to see an article in Cross Currents which discusses non-charedi initiatives respectfully. Thank you.

  4. cvmay says:

    “when I attended (as a fly on the wall)”: Shira, can you elaborate? Did you attend, participate and add ideas/thoughts to the conference? Or you were invisible, buzzing and flying around.

    On a more serious note, how many of the attendees at the conference were from the Sefardic Edah? Interestingly enough, even though there is a large representation of Sefardim within the National Religious Community they do not seem engaged in these intellectual modern-day conferences. Any idea why? BTW Rav Bin-Nun has a sefer full of Torah insights that are relevant, inspiring, and current.

  5. lacosta says:

    i am not sure why the haredi writer should feel offended if this group defines itself as ‘normal’ , implying all others are not [assuming it WAS intended, and even meant to be offensive]… are not most haredim [especially in Israel] suckled on the Milk of Self Righteousness [ in the sense of they know the Way the Truth and the Light] , to the exclusion of all others who are defined as krum?

    see sarah rigler’s column in whichever women’s section she writes for [i forgot if it’s Ami or Mishpacha] last week about an Achdus meeting between leading rebbetzens from the Eidah to DL were present. needless to say , while the Edah ladies expounded to the end the Falseness of the tzioni derech, the apikorsiche rebbetzins had to bear it with a ‘VaYidom Aharon’ attitude….

  6. cvmay says:

    “If it is nutty leftists, I move on. If it is trusted Gadol Hadorim, then I will look at it”, Eric, there is probably a large majority in between those two spectrums.

  7. dr. bill says:

    eric liebman, your desire to hear it from “trusted Gadol Hadorim” is against the practical advice of next week’s parsha. With God’s approval, yitro’s advice was accepted: only hadavar hakasha yaviu elakha. I have often found that real gedolim understand their roles and tend not to get involved in matters better left to others who can give it sufficient attention. Parts of current religious society suffers from an over reliance on gedolim and the impact on the gadol this entails; it is often better to get advice from someone suited to the issue and able to give it appropriate attention. Real gedolim have better things to do with their precious time.

  8. Shira Schmidt says:

    To Tzvi – you suggested translating “different strokes for different folks” as “Shivim panim latorah.” Great! Your suggestion is much more rooted in religious tradition than what I had in mind, which is the modern “al ta’am v-reach, ein l’hitvakeach.”
    To Mr.Cohen – thanks for the halachic summary. I am aware that there is a definite basis for rejecting non-Sabbath observer Eran as a prayer leader. But how do you convey this to him without driving him away? Maybe suggest studying the sources on the issue with him?
    To Eric Leibman-among the rabbis at the conference were R. Yoel BinNun,R. Yuval Cherlow,R.Amnon Bazak,R.Prof.D.Hershkowitz, Among the women was Rabbanit Malka Bina.Dr. Bill’s point that it isn’t always efficacious to have gedolim deal with every issue is worth pondering. To CVMAy – I went to observe, because I have deep reservations about the stances of many of the participants but I do enjoy talking with and learning from them.I made one comment-suggesting they go across the street to Kiryat Sanzm which is 180degrees the opposite of Beit Shemesh. A haredi community which is extreme about tolerance. CVMay asks why Sephardim are not attracted to such conferences – that is why I added the contrast with the massive mourning for Rabbai Gabai z”l. LaCosta raises an interesting conumdrum-how do you convey confidence in your own position without sounding imperious and supercilious?

  9. David Schaps says:

    Shira — “Al ta’am v-reach, ein l’hitvakeach” isn’t modern; its just a translation of the (apparently medieval) Latin de gustibus (et de coloribus) non est disputandum , “one can’t argue about tastes (and colors)”. A good translation, though.

  10. Chana Siegel says:

    How about “Eilu ve’eilu divrei Elokim chaim”?
    Or maybe “Chanoch l’naar l’fi darko”?

  11. L. Oberstein says:

    Many years ago when I was a student at KBY (1966) I attended the opening meeting of Tenuah L’Yahadut Shel Torah which was founded by Professor Leibovitch, (brother of Nechama)and others who wanted a more balanced religiousity. I never heard about it ever again. Many organizations start and then die out,others grow beyond their founders imaginations. Another example is Meimad, a party that represented the normal,moderate religious Zioinist approach. It passed away also. I think that some of those who mentioned the absence of Sephardim have a point. These fleeting movements are full of intellectuals and highly educated people but do not excite the masses. On the other hand, Agudath Israel of America was called a “filthy weed from foreign shores” in the 1940’s and look at it today. You need leaders and you also need leaders who can bring up followers. I think these elitist groups are unable to capture the interest of the majority of people who may live that way and agree in principal. You need passion, dynamism, and mesirat nefesh to build a movement, they don’t have it.

  12. Chana Siegel says:

    Meimad is “normal, moderate religious Zionist”? They had no trouble letting themselves be swallowed up by the Ma’arach coalition two or three elections ago, and that was left-wing anti-religious.

    Meimad didn’t “pass away” so much as it defined itself out on any constituency.

  13. dr. bill says:

    Rabbi Oberstein, your comment “You need passion, dynamism, and mesirat nefesh to build a movement, they don’t have it.” directed at meimad, indirectly and I assume unwittingly, disparaged a great RY, and founder of meimad, who recently passed away. I assume you might want to clarify.

    those who would align with meimad, are more likely to vote with some of the larger general political parties versus one that has a particular religious orientation. The implications of this change are an important topic for a different day, but in some measure represent their successful integration into israeli society (and its political system) while maintaining their religious observance.

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