By the staffs of Washington Jewish Week and Baltimore Jewish Times
Rabbi Hyim Shafner photographed by David Stuck
They say there are no dumb questions. Somehow that doesn’t help when you want to know something and are afraid to ask. But the staffs of Baltimore Jewish Times and Washington Jewish Week are professional questioners. We’ve asked our local rabbis the questions you want answered — as well as some you don’t. It’s all in the spirit of Jewish knowledge, and trying to find out if we could stump the rabbi.
Does the Talmud have any advice for social distancing during a plague?
The concept of social distancing isn’t foreign to the Talmud, explains Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg, senior rabbi of Chizuk Amuno Congregation, in Pikesville.
There is a place in the Talmud where the rabbis say to stay home during a plague, and one rabbi went so far as to keep his windows shut. At the same time, people believed that plagues were caused by spiritual misdoings, and that during a plague the community should look inward to correct what they were doing wrong.
“Obviously, we wouldn’t think that our sins caused COVID,” Gruenberg says. “But on some level, as we are dealing with a global pandemic, it is a good time for us to explore our society, because this pandemic does bring to the forefront certain ills of our society that it didn’t create, but that it certainly magnifies.”
Selah Maya Zighelboim
What inspired God to create humanity?
Rabbi Nochum Katsenelenbogen, of Chabad Owings Mills, says that before creation, God was missing nothing — except a relationship. God was alone and God wanted a relationship with free beings. So God created us and gave us ways of connecting to Him — the mitzvot, Katsenelenbogen says.
“So, God doesn’t need us; He wants us,” the rabbi says. “He didn’t give us commandments because He needs them to be fulfilled, but because He wants us to relate to Him.”
Katsenelenbogen points out that if God created humanity because God needed us to do something, then we would have been disposed of after the mission was fulfilled. “But God needs nothing. He chose to bring us into being as a pure act of love.”
What does Judaism say about cremation?
Traditionally, Judaism does not endorse the practice, says Rabbi Rory Katz of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation, in Baltimore. “There’s a belief in the importance of maintaining the integrity of the human body, and a desire for the person to be able to return to the soil in a natural way,” she says, adding that some draw a negative connection between cremation and the Holocaust.
Still, “I am sure there are good reasons people choose to do cremation,” she says. “Like most rules in Judaism there’s always good reasons for exceptions.”
What is a Jewish custom that didn’t exist 100 years ago?
The “traditional” bar and bat mitzvah candle lighting ceremony. Rabbi Charles Arian of Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg likes to put “traditional” in air quotes because, he says, it’s fairly newfangled as Jewish practices go.
“The bat mitzvah didn’t even exist 100 years ago,” he says.
Usually conducted by the DJ during the party, the ceremony involves family and friends being called to light a candle for someone who couldn’t attend the celebration. “The DJ almost always refers to it as the ‘traditional’ candle lighting ceremony,” Arian says, which gives it a sense of being a hallowed religious custom even though, if the party is on a Saturday afternoon, it ignores the fact “that lighting candles actually violates Shabbat.”
Arian remembers attending a bar mitzvah party with his wife, a Jew by choice who was never taught about the traditional bar and bat mitzvah candle lighting ceremony in her conversion classes. Arian composed a rhyme to give her a sense of how candle lighters are traditionally called to the menorah.
“You’re my best friend
Even though you’re not a Jew.
So Mary Christina
Come light candle number 2.”
Arian says the motivation behind the practice is a commendable one, and the idea of turning it into a Jewish tradition is understandable.
“The motivation is good — it honors people who can’t be there. There’s a desire to slot the practice in an accessible category and to fit into the chain of Jewish tradition, even when it’s counter to tradition,” Arian says. “It reflects legitimate Jewish instincts.”
Does Judaism believe in exorcism? And would you perform one if asked?
“Like so many, many, many things that may seem obscure, exorcism is something you can find in Judaism,” says Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple
Rodef Shalom, in Falls Church.
Schwartzman says there is at least one example of an exorcism-like event in the Tanach, or Hebrew Bible. In the Book of First Samuel, King Saul was being invaded by an evil spirit until David relieved him by playing the harp.
Schwartzman says there are also references to exorcism in various texts, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which mentions disease-causing demons.
But if a congregant approached Schwartzman for an exorcism, “the answer would be no. Maybe there is some rabbi out there who has done it, but I’m not the right person.”
Schwartzman says she would certainly meet with the person and try to help them any way she could. It’s possible the person could be mentally unstable or have other challenges. In that case, Schwartzman would refer them to the proper social services or medical care.
But if a person truly believed they had to have an exorcism, Schwartzman says she wouldn’t know where to start.
“I had no classes in rabbinical school on exorcisms. So I really don’t know much more than those basic facts.”
Why did God wait until Mt. Sinai to present the Torah to the Jewish people, instead of presenting it to Abraham, the first Jew?
Abraham did not receive the Torah because the Jewish people had to be more ready for it, says Rabbi Etan Mintz of B’nai Israel Congregation in Baltimore.
“The Jewish people had to go through the transformative experience of becoming a nation, of going through the exile and going through theExodus, until they were ready for the revelation at Sinai, at that seminal moment of the receiving of the Torah,” Mintz says.
Selah Maya Zighelboim
Some interpret the Bible literally. How do you think the Bible should
“Judaism has always understood there are a multitude of understandings of any biblical text.”
While some verses — like the prohibition of murder — seem straightforward, Busch said that “our tradition has always seen a rich multiplicity of views, in terms of how we might understand the text.”
Who is your favorite character in the Talmud?
That would be like asking Rabbi Sarah Krinsky of Adas Israel Congregation, in Washington, who her favorite congregant is. But prominent in Krinsky’s winner’s circle is Beruriah, a first-century Torah authority whose father and husband were both rabbis.. Beruriah was known for her wisdom and piety — and for being one of the few women in the Talmud known by name.
“We meet her first when two rabbis are talking about her,” Krinsky says.
The Talmud says that she learned 300 laws from 300 teachers in one day. She was that good. So when Rabbi Simlai came to Rabbi Yohanan and asked Yohanan to teach him the Book of Genealogies within three months, Yohanan berated him:
“If Beruriah couldn’t learn the material in three years, how can you expect to learn it in three months?”
“She was clearly extraordinarily sharp and studious, and she leaned into that to master this unusually challenging text,” Krinsky says. “But she also did not let a sense of hubris or competition or even ambition for the sake of external validation guide her in the same way that it seems to guide Rabbi Simlai.”
She adds, “Her Torah learning makes her more compassionate.”
Beruriah was married to Rabbi Meir. Their neighbors threw loud, drunken parties that interfered with the rabbi’s Torah studies. Once he grew so angry that he prayed for God to get rid of them. Beruriah overheard and reminded him that the Psalmist called for the end of sin, not of sinners. One should pray that evil disappears, then there will be no evildoers.
Meir realized she was right.
Beruriah knew her husband well and how to comfort him, Krinsky says.
One Shabbat, when Rabbi Meir was at services, their sons died suddenly in their room. Beruriah covered them up and told no one, including herhusband when he returned in the evening. “They have gone out,” she said when he asked about them, then prepared Havdalah and the evening meal.
When he had finished eating, she told him she had a problem that she’d like some advice about: Something had been left to her for safe keeping. Now the owner wanted it back. Must she return it?
Of course, Meir said.
Then Beruriah led her husband to the bed where their sons lay. Meir was devastated at the loss of his children. But Beruriah reminded him that God had given them their sons and now God had taken them back.
This midrash may not appeal to the modern sensibility, Krinsky says, but it shows that “she’s taking her Torah knowledge and using it to bring comfort to another person.
“She operated within the gender system she was born into,” Krinsky adds. “I love that she was able to find a powerful place for herself in her family and in society.”
Can a robot be Jewish?
“From an Orthodox perspective, I don’t think that will be possible because, based on precedent, only humans are able to become Jewish,” says Rabbi Eli Yoggev of Beth Tfiloh Congregation, in Baltimore.
Yoggev points to a responsa of Rabbi Chacham Tzvi that addresses whether a golem, which shares some similarity to a robot because it is lifelike and created by a human, could form part of a minyan. He concludes that a golem could not count as part of a minyan.
“We count the birthing process in terms of, genetically, being given birth to from a woman, a human, a female,” Yoggev says. “There’s precedent from that from the Bible and tradition, where it talks about somebody being from a woman.”
Exploring the question of whether robots could be Jewish brings up some interesting points about what makes something human, Yoggev notes. Intellect and speech are signs of humanity, but Yoggev doesn’t define humanity by those traits. Some may also say that what makes something human is a human soul. Yoggev doesn’t focus on this because souls are difficult to understand and define.
Selah Maya Zighelboim
What does Jewish law say about genetic tinkering?
Rabbi Velvel Belinsky of Ariel Center, in Baltimore, says the answer depends on the reason you’re tinkering.
“When a woman is pregnant, if the doctors found out there is something unhealthy about the child, then definitely it is a mitzvah to try to prevent all of the illness the child might have after birth,” he says. However, it’s not OK to eliminate the fetus altogether because of a disability, as all life is sacred.
But when it comes to artificial treatment of a specific gene to design a baby with dark or light hair for the parents’ preference, it’s not OK.
“Every medical involvement comes with side effects. So, if this medical involvement prevents or heals an ailment, it is not only permitted but required by Jewish law. But if the medical involvement is for a desire, this is where it would come with the cost of unwelcome side effects, and Jewish law would not allow that.”
What’s the best joke you’ve ever heard involving a rabbi?
Here’s Rabbi Hyim Shafner’s favorite:
“Yosseleh, a young congregant, comes to the rabbi for a shidduch, a match for marriage. The rabbi fixes him up with woman after woman, but the young man always has some complaint. One is too short. One too tall. One too fat. One too thin. Finally, exasperated, the rabbi says to him, ‘Yosseleh, you are looking for a person, not an etrog!’
“I can’t remember when I first heard it,” says Shafner, who leads Kesher Israel in Georgetown. “It was a long time ago. I like it because it is a joke that teaches something profound; in this case that humans, and especially partners, are not measured by how objectively perfect or fitting they are.”
Jesse Berman and Carolyn Conte are staff reporters for Baltimore Jewish Times. Eric Schucht is staff writer for Washington Jewish Week. Selah Maya Zighelboim is editor of Baltimore Jewish Times. David Holzel is editor of Washington Jewish Week.