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Your talmudic advice column

Tzvee Zahavy received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He taught advanced Talmud, halakhah and Jewish law codes, Jewish liturgy, Jewish history, and religious studies at seminaries and at major research universities. He is a prolific author and published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish texts. Visit www.tzvee.com for links. He also worked for 20 years for major banks and hedge funds as an information technology expert. See www.zahavy.com for details.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I have been bothered deeply to read and hear about a conflict among Teaneck Orthodox rabbis over the hiring of a woman in a clerical capacity at a local synagogue.

I think our rabbis ought to set better examples in their behavior and be more progressive in their views about women.

What can I do to help our community find greater comity and understanding in this matter?

Tired of tiffs in Teaneck

Dear Tired,

I’m sure you realize, first of all, that contention over female clergy is an issue only in the Orthodox world. The Conservative movement has counted women in the minyan for decades and ordained women starting in 1985. Reform Judaism also takes an egalitarian approach to the role of women in their communities. Its first woman rabbi was ordained in 1972.

Sorry, I fear there is not much I can suggest to you to do to help resolve this Orthodox rift. And I say this not based on an assessment of the contemporary persons and institutions involved in the current spat.

My conclusions are based on my expertise in the history of rabbinic Judaism and my detailed studies of the essences and core values of rabbinic literature going back over the past 2000 years.

First, rabbis must master the Talmud to obtain ordination. In doing that deep study, they are trained to argue. As a professor of Jewish studies, I taught many classes and courses on the Mishnah and Talmud. I’ve always emphasized an obvious central characteristic of those works of literature — the thousands of disputes between and among the rabbis over the whole range of issues of religious observances and beliefs.

Some examples of this rabbinic argumentation are the more than 300 disputes in the Mishnah between the early rabbinic schools called the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai over many aspects of rituals and laws. Any careful and diligent student of Talmud rightly would conclude that it is normal and desirable that rabbis argue with one another over and over about what is kosher or treif, what is clean or unclean, and what is permitted or forbidden for Jews to do.

Along with the proclivity to encourage disputes and debates, the Talmud and hundreds of successive volumes of publications in rabbinic literature expect that rabbis will decide some matters and then issue orders and decisions about their views and will instruct ordinary Jews in their communities to obey their guidelines.

To be sure, some of those age-old laws and customs in the Talmud and subsequent rabbinic literature that must be obeyed require that men and women be treated differently from one another. Specifically, rabbis teach that women must be segregated from men in the synagogues and yeshiva schools. Prevalent practices prevent women from leading prayer services or from receiving Torah honors in the Orthodox shuls. Other rules disqualify women from giving testimony in a Jewish law court. And rabbinic law does not allow a woman to initiate a divorce of her husband, even in a case of an abusive marriage or abandonment by the spouse. And yes, let us take note that in accord with rabbinic principles, women may not be counted to make up a quorum of 10 that is needed for conducting public prayers in the synagogue.

So, in my humble estimation, it seems incredibly ironic and defiant of logic for an Orthodox woman to seek out a rabbinic leadership role in a traditional synagogue, where she cannot even be counted toward a minyan.

Let me be metaphoric about this serious issue for a moment. It’s not as if the cart here is put before the horse. It seems to me that the horse is still locked in the barn and the cart has no possible expectation or hope to move forward.

Okay I’ve described some of the prominent realities of the rabbinic culture and conspicuous core values that we received from the past.

Certainly, I do get it that our latest and greatest contemporary disputes and debates are more vivid and real to all of us as we live through them and feel their unfolding impacts on our communities.

And I understand that the subject of gender inequalities each year becomes a greater source of potential dissonance and discord for Jews who wish to uphold the essence of our tradition, and at the same time embrace the egalitarian progressive values of contemporary American culture.

The bottom line to answer your concern about the present discord — Orthodox rabbis are trained by manifold talmudic paradigms to argue vociferously with one another. And further, they are expected to carry forward the customs and laws of the past into the communities of the present — even when some of those contain values that clash loudly with current social attitudes and mindsets in the general population of our towns and cities.

If our local Orthodox rabbis continue to adhere to their professional training, there’s little chance of them avoiding debate and disagreement, or of having them abandon the ancient rabbinic practices that discriminate against women, denying them certain rights and privileges.

Hence as I said, there is not much advice I can think of to offer to you to help enhance the rabbinic concord of our community in the areas of the current contentions. Yet because rabbis believe that it is a sacred act of Torah learning to engage in holy disputes, our present discord may not be a completely negative condition of our present local ethos.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I feel certain that I have lived a life prior to the one I am living. I have some clear memories of that life in a far different time and place from where I live now. But other details of it are unclear to me. And that troubles me.

Please tell me first if you think there is any chance that I have recalled something real. And if you do believe the possibility of a past existence is valid, then how can I uncover more about my past life or lives.

Living Life Over in Livingston

Dear Living,

I’m torn on how to advise you. On the one hand, as a firm materialist, I would have to say that your memories derive from your creative imagination, from experiences you have had during your lifetime and from things you have learned about over time.

I’d have to tell you firmly that we have the great fortune to live one lifetime and that is all. To deal with any troubling memories that you have, I’d advise you to consult a qualified therapist who may be able to help you sort all this out.

On the other hand, I will confess to you (and please don’t tell anyone) that I have at times believed that a person’s soul can live multiple lives.

The premise of the notion that any of us have had past lives is based on a wholly non-materialist belief in the existence of souls and the potential for their reincarnation. Those ideas are not incongruous with Judaism. We routinely pray for the souls of our departed relatives and friends. And the ideas of the gilgul (reincarnation) of souls was accepted by many credible medieval Jewish authorities.

One specific time in my life, I felt certain that I had memories of a life I myself had lived long ago and far away. I was traveling in Beijing, China ,and though I do not read or speak Chinese, the environs felt lucidly familiar to me. I knew my way in detail around the streets and neighborhoods of the city. That episode opened me up to taking seriously the possibility of a person having lived a past life.

And another time, one of my brightest students in Minnesota, a young Catholic woman, confided to me with great details that she was sure she had lived a past life as a Jewish girl who died in the Holocaust. She explained to me that she had recovered many of the details of her memories of that prior life by undergoing a process called a “past life regression.”

Yet, for two reasons, I cannot recommend that you seek out for yourself such a process. First, practically, I do not know of any nearby practitioner of that activity of past life regression. More important, I do not have the expertise to assess the potential psychological risks of engaging in such a deep probe of one’s troubling emotions and memories.

Accordingly, if possible, take your time and allow your difficult memories to settle and perhaps to pass. Above all, whatever you decide, proceed with appropriate caution under the guidance of credible trusted professionals.

Tzvee Zahavy is a prolific author who has published many books and articles about Judaism and Jewish law. Tzvee has served as professor of world religions, Talmud, Jewish law codes, Jewish liturgy, Jewish history, and Near Eastern and Jewish studies at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Go to www.tzvee.com for more details.


The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers mindful advice based on talmudic reasoning and wisdom. The author aspires to be equally open and meaningful to all the varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find the column here usually on the first Friday of the month. Please mail your questions to the Jewish Standard or email them to zahavy@gmail.com

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