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Senior Rabbi Joshua Rose
Senior Rabbi Joshua Rose

A Third Rabbi Walks Into the Bar…

Rabbi Joshua Rose

I would like to respond to the discussion started by Rabbi Gavriel Goldfeder’s article about the important concept of maintaining havdallah, distinction between holy and profane. Rabbi Marc Soloway did an admirable job of responding to some of the issues raised in Rabbi Goldfeder’s piece.

In looking at the conflagration that their debate has started, I would like to touch on one of these points and would like to address the larger issue of how we speak to and about one another in a diverse Jewish world.

As usual, Rabbi Goldfeder has something to teach us. I am quite blessed to name him among my good friends and as so many of us do, I so often take away from my encounters with him something profound and beautiful. His emphasis on the importance of maintaining a havdallah, a distinction between holy and not-holy, is essential to Jewish life. As he knows, this notion is so critical to a Jewish vision of the world that it is fundamental to every Jewish Movement.

While distinctions are important to maintain, false distinctions are important to avoid, and I’m afraid that our discussion has come to focus on these. To take one important example that so many have commented on already: there is no reason for us to choose between maintaining holiness and sanctity in our lives and bringing good to people in the broader world, be they Jews or non-Jews, whether they are in our country or somewhere else. God forbid we should ever have to make such a choice.

Yitzchak Meir Alter, the founder of Ger Hasidism, had a beautiful explanation for why the stork, known in Hebrew by the noble name of hasida (the loving one) was a non-Kosher animal. The stork, he taught, is known as hasida because it’s magnificent capacity to care for and love those of its own kind. It’s holiness does not extend to make it kosher, however, because it’s concern and love did not extend beyond its own kind. The Rebbe concludes that a Jew’s love and compassion must radiate out to all people.

Acts of courage, goodness, vision and beauty that ease suffering and elevate creation should be celebrated and honored. Rabbi Bronstein and Rabbi Soloway are to be commended for the good their work has done and for bringing honor to the Jewish people with this avodah. Many other rabbis in our community have done equally powerful work. There is much more to be said about this but that is not my purpose here.

I want instead to talk about derech eretz, a complicated concept that is not fully described when it first appears, in the Mishnah (Avot chapter 2). Two primary meanings as understood by centuries of interpretation are relevant to the discussion that has unfolded in our community.

The first of these is derech eretz as common, decent behavior. Our Sages have understood it as a kind of meta-mitzvah that is prior to Torah both chronologically and in order of our practice. “[Common, decent behavior] preceded the Torah by 26 generations,” Rabbi Shmuel ben Nachman claims in a midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 9:3). This can be understood to mean not only that God instructed us with derech eretz long before the Torah was given, but also that in each moment of our lives derech eretz must undergird our behavior in everything we do.

When we disagree as Jews as to the proper expression of Jewish life, our relationship to the mitzvot, how we express the vision of Holiness that the Holy One demands of the Jewish people, it is incumbent upon us to act with derech eretz. This means not demeaning the religious lives and efforts of other Jews, and not cheapening their vision of the Holy and the work they have done in the world.

It is important for us to have a discussions about havdallah and the importance of distinctions in Jewish life and yasher koach to Rabbi Goldfeder for having the vision to see the need for this.

The comments online from several people reflect a deep level of hurt and in some cases a lack of respect. We have to speak about, write about and engage with one another in a way that is beautified by the mitzvah of derech eretz.

The second meaning of derech eretz is also important to our discussion. In the early modern world it came to be seen by a luminary of early Orthodoxy, Samson Raphael Hirsch, as signifying an engagement with the broader world. Of course we cannot know how Rabbi Hirsch would have felt about the way that the phrase tikkun olam is used today. But based upon his work and writing we can be quite sure I think that he would have supported engagement of Rabbis and Jewish communities in critical moral issues facing our world.

Perhaps it was in accordance with this second meaning of derech eretz that Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a brilliant religious thinker and the father of modern Orthodoxy, acknowledged in an essay he wrote that Jews should work with the broader religious community on issues of civil rights, the peace movement, technology and other areas of common ground (see Rabbi Soloveitchik’s “On Interfaith Relationships”).

Precisely how these broader moral concerns of people like the Ger Rebbe, Rabbi Hirsch and Rabbi Soloveitchik play out will of course vary between communities. And different Rabbis are free to articulate, prioritize and act on these according to how they understand their obligation to do so.

But in the process of confronting the inevitable disagreements we have about these and other issues, we have to be guided by the first meaning of derech eretz, and treat one another with the kavod (honor) and love, as is fitting for all people, and in particular for Jews, to grant one another.

Blessings,

Rabbi Joshua Rose

Congregation Har HaShem

About Rabbi Joshua Rose

Rabbi Joshua Rose
I'm a rabbi at Congregation Har HaShem in Boulder

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7 comments

  1. Amen R. Rose, Yasher koach!

  2. Bruce Shaffer

    Thank you, Rabbi Rose, for your teaching on derech eretz, and your explanation of the two types thereof. And I see their intersection. We are enjoined to bring common, decent behavior into our engagement with the broader world of Jewry and non-Jewry alike (and even into any such world that may exist beyond the Boulder bubble). B'H', every day is a good day for tshuvah.
    Shavua tov – b

  3. I see no reason to respect, let alone honor a kiruv clown like Gavriel. There is nothing acceptable about pushing his values and beliefs in the public forum. He is entitled to them, but as soon as he tries to sell them to others he becomes a missionary, which is unacceptable.

    I would wish that non-kiruv rabbis would stop respecting or honoring this kind of work.

  4. Shalom , I agree that some of the comments that were posted in response to Rabbi Goldfeder's remarks were not contributive to the substance of the debate and denigrated into the expression of personal disgust. However, rabbis also require Derech Eretz and I think in this instance Rabbi Goldfeder's remarks lacked if not Derech Ertez than certainly prudence and wisdom. As i pointed out in my posts to Rabbi Goldfeder which he chose to side step Orthodoxy has its own issue with distinctions and their distortion. I asked him to consider whether perhaps he should focus his attention on these as they seem at least to me of greater moral import and impact. At times such as these when we are being bombarded with Orthodox extremists abuse of other Orthodox citizens of Bet Shemesh including the all time low of an 8 year old girl being spit on for "immodest dress" and having the whole world get to read about women sitting in the back of buses to have "proper" modesty is this the time when its prudent to call out his issues with non-Orthodox distinctions and his perceived disolution of them? Rabbi Goldfeder in his provocative/confrontational manner is representing an image of Orthodoxy as Other when many within Orthodoxy themselves identify with and want some of the changes that other liberal forms of Judaism have adopted and values they embody. How does Aish Kodesh intend to grow its fledgling congregation (financially dependent on Boulder Jews who identify to one degree or another with the very movements he criticizes), if it picks public fights with the noble work of progressive rabbinic and lay persons, lenient and inclusive halakhic views and contemporary translations that make Judaism palatable to modern individuals men and women. While its is very nice that Rabbi Goldfeder can maintain warm friendships with other rabbis in town despite his strident views and manner of expressing them it would be better if his colleagues gave him some feedback as to what functional public behavior and debate consist of that does not include publicly criticizing books he has never read, almost complete lack of reference to rabbinic sources and context and plain lack of common sense and prudence. The debate is a worthy one unfortunately at present the introduction of the debate has not been. Rabbis need to lead this would have been better for a Chaver panel not the patckying together of whatever has been bothering Rabbi Goldfeder since he has been in Boulder.

  5. Rabbi Gavriel Goldfeder

    As mentioned, Yiddishe, this is not about denomination. it never was. I never used the word Orthodox in my original article. I feel no need to defend the "denomination" you continue to associate me with; nor do I feel a need to impugn any other denomination. I raise what I feel are real issues regardless of denomination. You can either think about what I offer or not. Your choice.

    • Rabbi Goldfeder I am sorry but I fail to comprehend you. You are an Orthodox ordained rabbi you lead an Orthodox congregation in Boulder. While you utilize words like Alternadox or Open Orthdoox in the end when you get down to it you are an Orthodox rabbi. In your remarks you criticize the rulings of at least one other movement i.e. the Conservative yet you try to shield your comments from association by the lay public with any denomination and studiously avoid any authentic debate which you claim you wish to have. The fact that you do not use the word Orthodox is irrelevant any more than by analogy if Rush Limbaugh would use the word Republican. Rabbi Soloway who all regard as a supreme mensch and moreover a fine mind who knows you for many years himself understood your remarks having a denominatiional implications yet you see him as steering the conversation in the wrong direction. Look in the mirror. I await your substantive response to my dissection of your remarks not mere playing the denomination excuse that somehow I am merely interested in denominational politics.
      I have addressed the merits of your remarks in my other posts and find them lacking in scholarly substance, sources and more importantly devoid of any context and timeliness. The sages I am told say, "Just as its a Mitzvah to say something that can be heard so its a Mitzvah not to say something that will not be heard." Your manner of communication has guaranteed the latter outcome with much of the Boulder Jewish public. I am not sure what goal you had in publishing these kinds of "thoughts" but please in the future run them by some of your colleagues who are at pains to defend you so as to avoid more distaste of Orthodoxy than already exists which is quite adequate.

  6. Thank you, Rabbi Rose, for your beautiful reminder that we should never use the shield of on-line anonymity as an excuse not to treat each other with at least some measure of respect and decency. I thought your post was really lovely and very well written. Thank you.