Categories
Rabbis Responsa Rituals

New Responsum: B’rit Milah During the COVID-19 Pandemic (5780.3)

The CCAR is pleased to present this responsum on b’rit milah during the COVID-19 pandemic, the newest addition to our historic collection of questions and answers about Jewish living. Find the CCAR’s collection of Reform responsa here.

Please note: This responsa deals with the ritual aspects of b’rit milah. A doctor should always be consulted in regard to the medical aspects of b’rit milah.


Question
What should be the proper procedure regarding b’rit milah during the COVID-19 pandemic?
(Submitted by Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler, Director, B’rit Milah Program of Reform Judaism)

Response
In the midst of the current pandemic, it is understandable that parents and mohalim/ot are confused and frightened. We will examine the issues here carefully, one by one.

1. The importance of b’rit milah

In emphasizing the importance of b’rit milah the Talmud equates it to all the other mitzvot and, indeed, credits it with preserving the very existence of the world.[1]  In Christian lands it was an unmistakable, permanent marker of Jewishness; in Muslim lands, it marked Jewish male children.  Its complex psychological significance in a classically male-centered Jewish spirituality cannot be overstated.[2] It is true that the first generations of Reformers were deeply ambivalent about it; Kaufmann Kohler, for example, called it “a barbarous cruelty,” and recommended its abolition.[3]  It is quite likely that most Reform Jews would have ceased to practice circumcision had it not been for the view that gained currency in the early 20th century, that circumcision conveyed hygienic and health benefits.[4]  Before World War II, lengthy post-partum hospital stays for middle- and upper-class women and their infants made it easy to arrange a hospital circumcision, with or without ritual.  In the postwar era, however, shortened hospital stays led to numerous inquiries about the acceptability of circumcision before the eighth day, or the reality of Jews simply ignoring b’rit milah in favor of medical circumcision.  While Responsa Committee chair Israel Bettan authored a strenuous objection to that widespread practice in 1954,[5] Solomon Freehof was far more accommodating in 1960.[6]  All Reform responsa since then, however, have followed R. Bettan in insisting on the importance of milah on the eighth day as a religious rite.[7]  As a movement we have encouraged Reform Jews to choose b’rit milah  on the eighth day, and have facilitated this by training Reform mohalim/ot.

2. Circumstances for delaying b’rit milah

We are forbidden to endanger ourselves. As Maimonides writes:  “The Sages prohibited many things because they are life-threatening.  And anyone who ignores their words, and says, ‘I can go ahead and endanger myself; what business is it of anyone else what I do to myself?’ or ‘I pay no attention to that’ – they are to flog him for rebelliousness.”[8] We are obligated to preserve ourselves from danger (and, as parents, we are responsible for preserving our children from danger). There is, therefore, unanimous agreement among all halakhic authorities that we delay b’rit milah if the infant is not healthy enough to undergo it.[9] By contrast, there is far less consideration of whether b’rit milah might risk the well-being of an otherwise healthy infant.[10]  However, there is a faint thread running through the halakha that is worth examining in detail. It begins with this Talmudic passage:

Rav Pappa said:  Therefore, on a cloudy day or on a day when a south wind is blowing, we do not circumcise [an infant], nor do we draw blood.  But nowadays, when people are accustomed to ignore [these strictures, we rely on the assurance that] Adonai preserves the simple (Ps. 116:6) [and we proceed on the assumption that no harm will follow].[11]

This statement was never codified in the later halakha, but the Nimukei Yosef cites it approvingly:

The Ritba wrote in the name of his teacher [with reference to this passage]:  From here we learn that whoever does not wish to circumcise on a cloudy day has permission to do so, and is acting with clear justification in not relying on Adonai preserves the simple. And similarly it is appropriate not to circumcise on Shabbat if it is cloudy.[12]

The discussion of this issue by the Arukh Ha-Shulḥan makes abundantly clear that the underlying concern is whether conditions are such that performing the rite could endanger the infant:

…But Rabbenu Yeruham wrote that neither a cloudy day nor a south wind delays the b’rit milah, because Adonai preserves the simple.  However, the strain of a journey – meaning that the infant is ill from the strain of having made a journey, does postpone the b’rit, until he is well.  Another authority wrote that anything other than some illness in the infant himself – such as having to go on a journey – does not delay the b’rit, just as we do not delay it for the sake of blowing winds.

Obviously, we do not delay the b’rit for the purpose of going on a journey, but rather we carry it out. But it seems to me that it is obviously forbidden to take the infant on a long journey until he has recovered from the circumcision, lest he be endangered. However, it may be permissible to take him in a wagon, since in that case he is placed in one spot and appropriately covered with blankets and pillows. Also, one can see, when they have brought him on a journey by wagon, whether any weakness appears in him. This requires examination by experts in the body and face of the infant. Indeed, we have never heard what the Nimukei Yosef wrote, that on cloudy days it is permitted to delay the b’rit.  In fact, it is because Adonai preserves the simple that we are lenient on optional matters such as drawing blood on the eve of Shabbat…and thus all the more so with regard to an important commandment such as circumcision.  And the proof of this is that not a single one of the authorities saw fit to mention this.  So we learn that we do not use its guidance in fulfilling our obligation. Thus has the custom spread, and there is no changing it.[13]

It is quite obvious that the original authority, Rav Pappa, was expressing a genuine medical concern, based on his best knowledge. As subsequent generations’ medical knowledge changed, however, they dismissed these concerns as nonsense – but did not replace them with their own medical concerns.  This may reflect the tacit trend toward stringency evident in the halakha over time, as seen in other practices such as the discontinuation of hafka’at kiddushinas a way of preventing agunot, or the Ashkenazic invention of “glatt kosher.”


Fortunately, we are under no obligation to adhere to the codified halakha when a minority viewpoint has clear merit.  And as we have stated before, we rely on medical expertise:  “As rabbis, we are not competent to render judgments in scientific controversies.  Still, we do not hesitate to adopt ‘the overwhelming view’ as our standard of guidance in this and all other issues where science is the determining factor.”[14]

It is clear to us that b’rit milah may be delayed when performing the rite would endanger an otherwise healthy infant.

3. Does performing b’rit milah at this time endanger the infant?

The reality in North America is that parents can take many steps to minimize the chances of infection, but under current circumstances it is virtually impossible to eliminate all possibility of infection. Asymptomatic individuals are not being tested; the incubation period can be lengthy; and the virus is extremely contagious.  In many areas, by the time the infant reaches his eighth day, it is already highly probable that he has already been exposed to someone who is carrying the virus, unless he was born at home under conditions of strict isolation, and the medical practitioner(s) who delivered the baby were known to have tested negative for the virus.  In other areas, it appears that this will be the case before too long.

As of this writing, there is not enough science available to stand as definitive research on COVID-19 in infants. Anecdotal evidence continues to mount, however, indicating that infants do not appear to be seriously affected. Infant deaths from the virus are so rare that individual cases are being reported as news. It appears that in each case there were underlying health complications.[15]  It seems counterintuitive, and understandably goes against parents’ instinctive reactions, but so far the evidence is that babies, including newborns, are far less susceptible to COVID-19 than are older adults, unless the infants have some other health problem. It appears that the adults who would be present at a b’rit milah could be at greater risk than the infant himself.

Furthermore, there is no guarantee that this virus will disappear soon.  Experts are saying that it will continue to circulate until there is a vaccine to treat it, with some saying that we will, therefore, require social distancing for 12-18 months.[16] After that much time has elapsed, circumcision will be much more difficult and will carry its own set of risks.

Medical literature regards “newborn” circumcision as routine, requiring only local anesthesia, up to about age six weeks.[17] Beyond six weeks, or when the baby grows larger than twelve pounds, it may be advisable to wait until he is six months old and perform the procedure under general anesthesia. There is a small indication that bleeding is a more likely complication for an older baby. Furthermore, as the baby ages, the foreskin is thicker and less pliable, so it is more difficult from a technical point of view to perform the circumcision using the more traditional Mogen clamp.

It would appear, then, that there is no absolute guarantee of safety for the infant; but he is no more at risk in a b’rit milah performed on the eighth day, even during the pandemic, than he will be at any time in his first year of life. That assumes, of course, that the b’rit milah is carried out in a way that does not add needless risk. It should be in the home, and there should be no one present other than the parents and the mohel/et.  All standard procedures to minimize transmission should be followed, including wearing masks and gloves. It would be advisable to reduce danger to the parents by not having the rite performed by a mohel/et who has been working in a hospital or clinic where COVID-19 patients are being treated.

Some parents will, doubtless, consider a medical circumcision immediately after birth, followed by hatafat dam b’rit at home. We would point out that the most significant risk factor for the virus is the number of people to whom one is exposed at close range. A hospital procedure will bring the infant into contact with at least as many adults as will a b’rit milah performed at home.

Conclusions

  1. B’rit milah on the eighth day is a mitzvah that we as Reform Jews take extremely seriously.
  2. We take seriously the obligation of sh’mirat ha-guf, preserving our well-being, and we therefore recognize danger to an otherwise healthy infant as a valid reason for postponing a b’rit milah.
  3. In keeping with our commitment to taking into account the best scientific and medical advice, given what we know about COVID-19, its transmission, and the danger it poses to infants, we do not find that performing the b’rit milahon the eighth day, with appropriate precautions, poses a more significant risk to the infant than delaying it until the pandemic has passed.

As we wrote recently, the COVID-19 pandemic constitutes a genuine emergency situation (sha’at had’ḥak). “In an emergency situation a bet din is responsible for taking action for the welfare of the community, and may issue a temporary ruling (hora’at sha’ah) to prevent the kahal from going astray.”[18] People can “go astray” in all sorts of ways, including by allowing  self-preservation and concern for our families to turn into irrational fear and panic. We pray that this pandemic will pass, and that as many lives as possible will be spared, and that people’s livelihoods will not be destroyed; but in the meantime we will – we must – continue to live our lives.

Joan S. Friedman, chair
Howard L. Apothaker
Daniel Bogard
Carey Brown
Lawrence A. Englander
Lisa Grushcow
Audrey R. Korotkin
Rachel S. Mikva
Amy Scheinerman
Brian Stoller
David Z. Vaisberg
Jeremy Weisblatt
Dvora E. Weisberg


[1] Nedarim 32a.

[2] See Lawrence A. Hoffman, Covenant of Blood: Circumcision and Gender in Judaism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), and Shaye J.D. Cohen, Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised? Gender and Covenant in Judaism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

[3] “Authentic Report of the Proceedings of the Rabbinical Conference Held at Pittsburg, Nov. 16, 17, 18, 1885,” in Walter Jacob, ed., The Changing World of Reform Judaism:  The Pittsburgh Platform in Retrospect (Pittsburgh:  Rodef Shalom Congregation, 1985), 101.

[4] See David Gollaher, “From Ritual to Science: The Medical Transformation of Circumcision in America,” Journal of Social History vol. 28, no. 1 (Autumn 1994): 5-36.

[5] ARR #55, “Circumcision on a Day Other Than the Eighth Day of Birth.”

[6] RR #21, “Circumcision Before Eighth Day.”

[7] ARR #56, “Circumcision Prior to the Eighth Day” (1977); CARR #28, “Berit Milah” (1978); CARR #100, “The Pressured Mohel” (1988).

[8] Yad, H. Rotze’aḥ 11:5.  See also Isserles’ gloss to ShA YD 116:5.

[9] Yad, H. Milah 1:16-17; ShA YD 262:2, 263:1.

[10] This question did arise in connection with metzitzah b’feh.  The majority opinion is that metzitzah is a hygienic matter, not an integral element of the mitzvah, and therefore any technique that makes it safer is permitted.  Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice (NY: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1979), 424.

[11] Yev. 72a.

[12] Nimukei Yosef, Yevamot 24a, s.v. ve-ha-id’na.

[13] Arukh Ha-Shulḥan YD 263:4-5.

[14] RR21, vol. 2, 5759.10, “Compulsory Immunization.”

[15] For example, see this news story: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/29/coronavirus-illinois-governor-announces-rare-death-of-baby, accessed 10 April 2020.

[16] See, e.g., https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/federal-government-18-month-plan-life-return-normal/story?id=70046439, accessed 10 April 2020.

[17] For the research that provided the information in this paragraph I thank Dr. Bryan Hecht, M.D., Division Director of Reproductive Endocrinology, Obstetrics and Gynecology, MetroHealth, Cleveland, board certified in Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility, and a certified Reform mohel.

[18] Yad H. Mamrim 2:4, cited in 5780.2, “Virtual Minyan in Time of COVID-19 Emergency.”

Categories
member support mental health

Coronavirus and the Clergy-Penitent Privilege: Guidance for Rabbis

Jean-Marc Favreau and Michael Gan of Peer, Gan & Gisler, LLP share guidance around confidentiality between rabbis and community members. While this guidance is intended to raise awareness about issues related to maintaining confidentiality between rabbis and those they minister to, it is not intended as legal advice, nor should it substitute for your own due diligence in researching these issues and options or obtaining legal advice that could address your specific circumstances. If you have further questions, feel free to contact the CCAR or Jean-Marc Favreau or Michael Gan at Peer, Gan, & Gisler LLP.




Given the current COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on how we all are communicating and doing our jobs, many rabbis are utilizing different forms of technology to communicate with their congregants as well as to conduct and broadcast services, sermons, and other events. These unique circumstances offer a good opportunity to review and offer some guidance on some of the fundamental principles surrounding the Clergy-Penitent Privilege and how it is impacted when communications do not take place in person.

Privileged Communications Generally

  • Generally, communications between a member of the clergy and an individual who comes to them for counseling, spiritual guidance, or other reasons that would reasonably be considered private are privileged under state laws and court evidentiary rules. In the simplest terms, with very limited exceptions, a rabbi cannot be forced to disclose such communications.
  • It is essential to understand the particular confidentiality laws of your state, as there could be some differences in defining who holds the privilege, who is entitled to its protections, what types of communications are confidential, and what types of communications must be reported to authorities.
  • Beyond legal rights and obligations regarding confidentiality, rabbis also have an ethical responsibility to keep the types of communications described above private and secure.
  • Implicit in these legal privileges and ethical obligations is the requirement that the rabbi take reasonable steps to prevent the disclosure of such communications. Leaving a notebook containing personal information about a congregant out in a public space where it could be read by others is as much an ethical violation as letting private information about a congregant slip out during a conversation with another individual.

The Effect of Technology on the Privilege

  • Significantly, the privilege (and your ethical obligations) attach equally to in-person meetings as they do to communications that take place over the phone, videoconferencing (e.g. Skype, Zoom, Facetime), or via other communication platforms.
  • The important distinction between in-person and phone/video communications lies in how and whether the communications are kept secure. Whenever technology is introduced, the rabbi should exercise some due diligence to ensure that the software/tools used have security features (e.g. passwords, encryption technology like VPN, etc.). The same goes for the servers and internet connections used.
  • Should a rabbi fail to use due diligence to afford some security to their communications with individuals who come to them for counseling, spiritual guidance, or the like, they could be subject to some civil legal liability should that information be exposed.

Suggested Guidelines

  • When using technology to meet with congregants/others you may want to ask yourself:
  • Are we going to be discussing issues that are likely to be privileged?

A discussion about a congregant’s marital problems is a lot different and may require more security measures than a discussion about what props are needed for the Purim shpiel. 

  • What technologies are out there that would allow me to communicate best with individuals? (See below)
  • Does the individual feel comfortable with the technology?

Individuals may feel more or less comfortable with a video option versus just talking over the phone.

  • What are the security features and privacy provisions of the technology you are using?

You should familiarize yourself with the terms and conditions of the technology you are using to find out, among other things:

                        What type of security is utilized, if any?

                        Is the information recorded on a server somewhere?

                        Who owns the information that is broadcast and/or stored?

Have I used a strong password to protect my account and network? Did my congregant take the same steps?

  • Alert the individual that conversing over these technologies may not offer the concrete privacy protections that an in-person meeting would have, but that you will do your best to keep the information privileged and safe.
  • Remind the individual to be in a private setting so that their side of the conversation will not be overheard (which would run the risk of undermining the privilege).
  • Install a Virtual Privacy Network (“VPN”) on any devices you use to communicate with congregants over the internet. Many VPN services exist at little or no cost, and this article will help you find a good one.
  • Ensure your videoconferencing or other communication service has basic security protections, including “end to end encryption”. Even most free services have this, but their paid plans may afford extra security (any additional costs should be covered by your congregation). For example:
  • Services such as Zoom offer plans beyond the free version that provide extra protections. This includes a HIPPA-compliant plan that health care providers use with patients. This might be overkill, but it would provide the greatest protections.
    • Services such as GoToMeeting and Cisco WebEx have built in “end-to-end encryption” and customizable security tools
  • Many other services also tout secure communications including popular options such as Skype, Google Hangout and FaceTime.
  • Whatever software you use, be sure you read the documentation on the website and check whether the encryption or other features are the default or have to be enabled.
  • Make sure you keep your software/technology up to date, as these companies often issue security patches.

Most of us agree that nothing can replace face-to-face communication when ministering to individuals, but in light of the current social-distancing recommendations, alternate technologies can serve as a good – temporary – substitute. As long as you fully inform yourself about the security features of the software and networks you are using and about how to enable those features, you are doing your due diligence to protect yourself and those you serve.

Categories
News Reform Judaism Responsa

Virtual Minyan in Time of COVID-19 Emergency

During the unprecedented need to quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic, the CCAR Respona Committee has responded to questions about technology and creating virtual minyans during this crisis and created this guidance. Additional Reform responsa can be found here, and the CCAR Statement on the COVID-19 pandemic can be found here.

5780.2: Virtual Minyan in Time of COVID-19 Emergency

Question:

May we rely on technology to create a virtual minyan in a time of crisis when we cannot gather in our synagogues?  If so, what are the criteria for constituting a valid virtual minyan?  How does one recite Kaddish in a virtual minyan?  At what point do we know it is appropriate to discontinue the virtual minyan and return to a physical minyan?  (submitted by numerous CCAR members)

Answer:

Although we have a recent decision[1] that rejects the virtual minyan, we are now in an emergency situation.  In an emergency situation a bet din is responsible for taking action for the welfare of the community, and may issue a temporary ruling (hora’at sha’ah) to prevent the kahal from going astray.[2]  People will certainly “go astray” by turning to all sorts of sources of comfort if we do not ensure that the kehillah kedosha, the holy community, can continue to function. 

The minyan and participation “outside” the minyan:  The essence of the minyan is the reciprocity of the social contract – the shared obligation that binds all ten individuals to one another, transforming them from a number of individuals into a community, a virtual bet Yisrael.  The halakha translated that conceptual essence into a physical one by mapping it onto a space, requiring the members of a minyan to be in one room together.[3]  The majority view in the halakha is that the individuals who constitute the minyan must be in one room, though some authorities hold that it is sufficient for them to be able to see each other, thus including, e.g., the individual who is visible through the window of the synagogue. 

            Now, however, we are in a situation where people may not gather in one room.  Therefore, for the duration of this emergency, we permit the convening of a minyan by means of interactive technology, i.e., technology that enables all members of the minyan to see and hear each other.  Two widely used examples of this type of technology are Zoom (available as a smartphone app) and Microsoft Teams.  In essence, therefore, we are requiring the use of Zoom or Teams – or any app with the same capabilities that may appear on the market now – to constitute a virtual minyan.  (As always, and especially in this time of economic distress, we presume our congregations and all of our people will adhere to all intellectual property and copyright laws as they obtain software.)

            As long as there are ten people connected in an interactive manner, any number of additional people may also be “present” passively, via live streaming.  In accordance with the precedent of 5772.1,[4] we do not count these individuals in the minyan.  In our current context, the obstacle to counting the livestream viewer in the minyan is that s/he cannot be seen or heard, and therefore cannot be an equal participant in the minyan’s underlying social contract.  Additionally, there is no way for the service leader to know how many people, if any, are watching a live stream, and therefore no way of knowing whether a minyan is “present” in the absence of ten interconnected members. 

            We affirm that one who is viewing a livestream should still respond to all the prayers; this is considered the same as having recited them.[5]  The same is true for the livestream viewer who recites the words of the Mourners’ Kaddish along with the service leader.[6] 

            The CCAR plenum has never taken a stand on whether a minyan is required for public prayer, but its importance has been a given for most Reform rabbis and their congregations.  In a 1936 responsum, Jacob Mann advised that “every attempt should be made to have a full minyan,” but allowed congregations to rely on the Palestinian custom of fixing a minyan at six or seven.”[7] Many small congregations rely on this responsum.  Some congregations of varying sizes disregard the minyan completely.  We are not saying now that every Reform congregation must adhere to the requirement of a minyan of ten, but we encourage it, even in small congregations, as a way of bringing the community together.[8] 

Torah reading:  All parts of the service can be conducted in a virtual minyan with the obvious exception of actually reading from the Torah scroll.  As a further hora’at sha’ah, it is sufficient to read from a printed text without any aliyot.  However, this is still a fulfillment of the mitzvah of Torah study and requires a b’rakhah (although all authorities agree that if one has earlier said la’asok be-divrei Torah, this requirement is merely for the honor of the community[9]).  Under these present circumstances, we suggest reverting to the practice set forth in the Mishnah:[10] The first reader recites the blessing before the reading, and the last reader recites the blessing after the reading.  An alternative practice, for those who do not want to use the Torah blessings for anything other than reading from the scroll, is to recite la’asok b’divrei Torah before reading from the printed text.  Either way, we also strongly encourage including serious Torah study in addition to the reading.

The duration of these temporary procedures:  Finally, at some point in the future, we know that this health crisis will end.  When the authorities stop restricting attendance at public functions, this hora’at sha’ah should be set aside.  People should return to the synagogue and the practice of interactive virtual minyanim should cease. We realize that some people may be fearful, but we rely on experts in these matters. “As rabbis, we are not competent to render judgments in scientific controversies.  Still, we do not hesitate to adopt ‘the overwhelming view’ as our standard of guidance in this and all other issues where science is the determining factor.”[11]  Nevertheless, individuals in the most vulnerable populations (especially the elderly with pre-existing medical conditions) may benefit from live streaming.  In these circumstances, the precedent of our earlier responsum, 5772.1, offers sufficient guidance. 

Joan S. Friedman, CCAR Responsa Chair
Howard L. Apothaker
Daniel Bogard
Carey Brown
Lawrence A. Englander
Lisa Grushcow
Audrey R. Korotkin
Rachel S. Mikva
Amy Scheinerman
Brian Stoller
David Z. Vaisberg
Jeremy Weisblatt
Dvora E. Weisberg


[1] 5772.1 A Minyan Via the Internet, https://www.ccarnet.org/ccar-responsa/minyan-via-internet, accessed 15 March 2020.
[2] Yad H. Mamrim 2:4.
[3] Pesaḥim. 85b; Yad H. Tefillah 8:7; Shulḥan Arukh OḤ 55:13.
[4] We note also the supporting precedent of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, OḤ 55:15:2001: Wired to the Kadosh Barukh Hu: Minyan via Internet, https://www.rabbinicalas sembly.org/sites/default/files/2020-03/ReisnerInternetMinyan.pdf, accessed 15 March 2020.
[5] Shulḥan Arukh OḤ 55:20.
[6] CJLS OḤ 55:15:2001.
[7] American Reform Responsa #3: Less Than a Minyan of Ten at Services.
[8] On the history of the minyan in Reform Judaism and its importance, see “The Minyan” in Mark Washofsky, Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice (NY: UAHC Press, 2000), 19-22.
[9] Magen Avraham 139:15.
[10] Megillah 4:1.
[11] Reform Responsa for the Twenty-First Century, vol. 2,5759.10: Compulsory Immunization.

Categories
Ethics Reform Judaism Responsa shabbat

New Responsum: Collecting for Tzedakah in the Synagogue on Shabbat

The CCAR is pleased to present this Responsum on collecting money for tzedakah in the synagogue on Shabbat (5780.1), the newest addition to our historic collection of  questions and answers about Jewish living. 

Question: The question has arisen in our congregation as to whether it is permissible to collect money for tzedakah on Shabbat. I am aware of a few congregations who do announce the tzedakah cause for the week and have ushers accept donations on the way out of services, without pressure of course.  I am well aware of the prohibition of carrying money and engaging in commercial activities on Shabbat in the halacha. But, as Reform Jews, we pay little heed to most of these rules. Also, we have no reservations about other traditional prohibitions, e.g. driving on Shabbat, turning on electric lights, cooking food, etc. Most Reform Jews carry money in their wallets and purses on Shabbat without the sense that they are violating the Shabbat. No doubt, many also engage in other activities that are not traditionally permissible. These activities, I realize, are considered violations of Shabbat, whether the practices are widespread or not. However, it seems to me that tzedakah may fall into a different category for us. After all, the individual who gives tzedakah is not benefitting in any material way. Given Reform Judaism’s deeply held convictions about the importance of tzedakah, could this mitzvah override the traditional prohibition in the view of our movement?


– Rabbi Michael Sternfield, Bradenton, FL

Answer: As we have seen, not using money – even for the most worthy of purposes – was a distinguishing feature of Shabbat observance, whose symbolic significance only grew over time.  Our evolving Shabbat observance, in a Reform context, has digressed from that consensus by recognizing a limited number of ways in which using money may enhance an individual’s Shabbat, by deepening their experience of it as a day of spiritual renewal, e.g., paying admission to a museum.  But in that case, the use of money is an incidental means to a central purpose of Shabbat.  It is not intended to grant unrestricted approval for spending money on Shabbat.  Indeed, our Reform precedents are unanimous in insisting that giving tzedakah is a financial transaction that should not be done on Shabbat, however praiseworthy it is to link it to Shabbat.  (By way of analogy, we might consider the Conservative movement’s decision to allow driving to synagogue.  That takkanah was made to enable Jews to attend public worship on Shabbat when 1950s suburbanization meant that synagogues were increasingly not within walking distance.  It did not give Conservative Jews blanket permission to grab keys and a full tank of gas to go out and “see the USA in their Chevrolet” on Shabbat.)

It is one thing to allow an individual to make a personal decision to use money as an incidental means to enhance their Shabbat renewal.  It is quite another to declare that the mitzvah of giving tzedakah – a commercial transaction – is so important that we may, or that we should, make it a regular, i.e., essential, part of our Shabbat observance.  We would be making a  fundamental alteration in the character of Shabbat.  If we are to do that, there must be a compelling reason to do so, a matter of overriding necessity.  We do not see any such  compelling reason or overriding necessity in the question before us.

As we have seen, our tradition has long accepted that it is perfectly acceptable to discuss communal affairs, including deciding tzedakah allocations (but not actually disbursing the funds), on Shabbat, and making pledges to give tzedakah.  Nothing is stopping the congregation from including a formal tzedakah appeal in the Shabbat service.  But why is it so crucial for the actual funds to be collected then?  And how are they to be collected?  Are the ushers passing a plate for cash, as in churches?  Handing out pens for people to write checks?  Carrying around credit card readers?  Encouraging congregants to take out their smart phones and make a donation via PayPal?  How can this be done as part of a Friday night (or Saturday morning) synagogue service without fundamentally altering the character of Shabbat in a way that destroys its sanctity?

We especially do not see a compelling reason, given that a congregation can still take advantage of the larger Shabbat attendance – as did our ancestors – without actually collecting money on Shabbat.  We therefore recommend the following solution to the matter.

Our congregations tend to hold services at the same hour on Friday nights throughout the year, regardless of when the sun actually sets.  For many Reform Jews, the start of the service is for all intents and purposes the start of Shabbat, when they feel that the Sabbath has come upon us ritually, emotionally, and intellectually.  Given that established practice, we suggest that you collect tzedakah before candle lighting and the beginning of worship.  In this way, carrying out the mitzvah of giving tzedakah immediately before entering into Shabbat heightens people’s awareness of the transition from ḥol to kodesh, and the difference between the two.  We note the existing custom of putting coins in a pushke (tzedakah box) before lighting the Shabbat candles, which is mentioned in our Reform guides; just as we have brought candle lighting into the synagogue, why not bring the pre-Shabbat tzedakah contribution as well?

(One of our committee members offers an additional pragmatic solution:  Add PayPal and other donation links to the synagogue webpage, and in the weekly Shabbat brochure, remind the kahal to donate to whatever tzedakah you choose for that week’s support.)

We believe very strongly that the synagogue, as the central public institution of Jewish life, embodies our covenant community, and therefore it must be the exemplar of Jewish life.  The standards we set for it may well differ from what we countenance on an individual level.  This is particularly true in a Reform context  precisely because we allow a great deal of latitude to individuals to determine their own Shabbat observance.  In essence, therefore, it falls upon the synagogue to provide an appropriate model.  As a movement we have made great strides since the 1960s in teaching our people how to observe Shabbat; bringing financial transactions into the synagogue on Shabbat would constitute an enormous step backward.

However, even if you do make a formal tzedakah collection your last weekday act before beginning Shabbat, we have additional reservations if it is done as a public activity.  Collecting money when the congregation is assembled for the service can make people uncomfortable for any one of several reasons: perhaps they did not bring money with them; perhaps they do not use money on Shabbat; or perhaps the appeal is for a cause they prefer not to support.  It can be very uncomfortable to refrain from giving in the presence of others.  It can also be awkward for guests and non-members:  We do not want people to feel that we are soliciting them when they enter the community to explore Judaism, check out our congregation, or attend a friend or family member’s simchah.  We therefore advise you to think carefully about how to do this, so that no one is embarrassed.

In addition, though we have not based our response on this consideration, we cannot discount the issue of ḥukkot ha-goy (imitating Gentile practices).  In our society, where Christianity is still the dominant religious tradition, collecting tzedakah during the Shabbat service cannot help but resonate with echoes of passing the collection plate in church.  Our concern is not merely the imitative element, but also the implicit lesson.  In calling to mind the dominant cultural paradigm of “charity,” it will teach a very un-Jewish lesson, that tzedakah is charity, i.e., something one does voluntarily, out of the goodness of one’s heart, rather than a mitzvah, a religious obligation, as Mishkan Moeid points out (see above).

Summary:

  1. The essence of Shabbat, in our tradition, is to be a holy day of rest and spiritual renewal, marked by cessation from labor and weekday occupations. Over centuries of Jewish life, refraining from the use of money – the ultimate transactional substance, and the essence of commercial activity – has been a key signifier of the distinction between kodesh and ḥol. This has been true in the Reform context despite our implicit rejection of rabbinic notions of melakhahsh’vut, and muktzeh.
  2. Giving tzedakah is a financial transaction. Despite its stated importance in Reform Judaism, adding it to the mitzvot that ought to be performed on Shabbat would be a fundamental redefinition of Shabbat, and therefore should not be done unless there is an overriding need and compelling reason to do so.
  3. We find no overriding need and compelling reason to approve of giving tzedakah on Shabbat, since the sho’el’s stated purpose can be met in another way, even on erev Shabbat.

Read the complete responsum, including the classical halakhah and Reform precedents here, and find the CCAR’s collection of Reform responsa here. And to learn more about Jewish perspectives on money, read The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic, published by CCAR Press.

The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic

Categories
Passover Pesach

Passover Round-up from CCAR Members

RavBlog has collected a series of supplemental readings from CCAR members for a  special “Passover Round-up.”  These are meant to be meaningful supplements for your seder, for use in addition to your Haggadot.  If you are in need of last minute Haggadot for your seder, remember that CCAR Press offers both The New Union Haggadah and Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family on your eReader!

 

Rasha 5778 by Rabbi Dean Shapiro

Pesach Yizkor: Redemptive Remembrance by Rabbi Jennifer Gubitz

Dayenu: For All Times by Rabbi Lucy H.F. Dinner

Ask Me a Seder! A Passover Trivia Game by Rabbi Leah Berkowitz

Dayenu- A Special Passover Reading For American Jews by Rabbi Lance J. Sussman

The Women of the Passover Story by Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik

The Four Children of Metropolis by Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik

Cancer Supplement for Seder by Rabbi Ben David

Dayeinu…When Will Enough Be Enough? by Rabbi Marla Feldman (originally for the Women of Reform Judaism)

2018 Passover Seder Supplement by the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queens University of Charlotte

 

 

Categories
Social Justice

Consultation on Conscience: Justice In Two Places

Justice work can happen in the halls of Congress and it can happen on the streets.  This past Tuesday we did justice work in both places.

We had been in Washington D.C. participating in the Religious Action Center’s Consultation on Conscience; Tuesday was our lobby day. As we were hearing from prominent Senators and Representatives at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, two blocks away at the Supreme Court, our Justices were hearing arguments on Marriage Equality, perhaps the most important civil rights case of this generation. Rabbi Denise Eger, a leading advocate for Marriage Equality and President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and Rabbi Lucy Dinner were speaking at a rally on the steps of the Supreme Court and we wanted to go hear them.  Although we missed their speeches, we might not have heard them anyway over the cacophony of competing rallies from both the Marriage Equality advocates and those who oppose equal rights for all (and whose signs and banners were particularly hateful).

As we walked away from the center of the rally and were surveying the scene we noticed a small group of Ultra-Orthodox Jews standing on a prominent corner, protesting Marriage Equality, waving signs just as hateful as those of the dozens of Christian Fundamentalists.  We wanted to make sure that those who gathered to support Marriage Equality knew that Reform religious Jews also supported Marriage Equality.  So what did we do?  We formed a spontaneous counter protest.  It began with four of us, positioned strategically by the Ultra-Orthodox demonstration, singing loudly and cheerfully, ‘Hinei Mah Tov  u’ma’naim shevet achim gam yachad—how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell together.’  As we sang, more of our colleagues IMG_0833and other Jews too joined our group, proud to see their brothers and sisters in faith raising the call for justice and for love. They thanked us for our support. Many others, Jews and non-Jews, saw religious Jewish allies raising our voices in support of Marriage Equality.  All we did was sing prayers of peace, brotherhood and sisterhood, showing all those around (and those watching on TV) that we were people of faith, Jews, Reform Jews lifting up the commandment from this week’s Torah portion, ‘V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha—Love your neighbor as yourself.’

We didn’t plan this counter protest.  But we were compelled to respond by demonstrating the powerful truth of our tradition. We knew we couldn’t stand idly by while a group of intolerant, hateful Jews tried to coopt out faith and our tradition.  All it took were the familiar melodies of Hinei Mah Tov and Oseh Shalom to lift the spirit and the soul, to draw in other Jews, and those who aren’t Jewish and show how a heritage rooted in love and acceptance could overcome hate and intolerance.

Eventually we returned to the Senate Building; we met with our elected officials and lobbied on issues important to us as Reform Jews.  However our true prayer and passion on Tuesday was firmly rooted in street justice through our steps and our songs.

———

Rabbis Mona Alfi (Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento, CA), Charles Briskin (Temple Beth El in San Pedro, CA)and Joel Thal Simonds (University Synagogue in Los Angeles, CA) wrote this piece together. They are members of Reform CA and representatives of the CCAR on the Joint Commission on Social Action.

Categories
CCAR Convention

CCAR Helped Maya Rigler Reach Goal of $100,000 for Alex’s Lemonade Stand

The Central Conference of American Rabbis is proud to announce that a cancer fundraising effort by 10-year-old Maya Rigler on behalf of Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation broke the $100,000 mark yesterday at our convention.

Maya, the daughter of CCAR members Rabbi Stacy Eskovitz Rigler and Rabbi Peter C. Rigler, found out that she had a malignant tumor at the beginning of 2015 – her second battle with cancer. When community members started to reach out to her to offer support, she decided to pass along that generosity to others.

Maya started a virtual lemonade stand, which took physical form as a booth at the CCAR convention in Philadelphia, to raise money for the Foundation. Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation is a childhood cancer charity that has raised millions of dollars. Maya’s original goal was to raise $10,000 – before long that goal was raised to $50,000.

It’s an honor to have Maya break the $100,000 mark with us this week, and it serves as a fitting reminder of the commitment we make within the Reform community to philanthropy, charity and a responsibility for those less fortunate and in need. To contribute to Maya’s goals, please click here.

Categories
News Rabbis

CCAR Rabbis in the News

It seems like there’s an article in the news about CCAR rabbis every week. We’d like to share these with you. If you would like to share an article, please send it to cori.carl@ccarnet.org.

The CCAR is immensely proud of all of our members and recognize that the most important work is not always news worthy. If you would like to share your experiences with your colleagues, feel free to submit to RavBlog.

 

Our Actions

36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave to Raise Money to Fight Childhood Cancer

The Daily Beast | March 2

Cancer claimed Sam Sommer when he was 8. To honor the memory of the boy nicknamed ‘Superman Sam,’ his parents started a novel fundraising mission.

 

For young Jewish professionals, a Metro Minyan shabbat community

Washington Post | February 28

Rabbi Aaron Miller said a growing number of young Jewish professionals are looking for “a Jewish place to learn, pray and, of course, meet each other.” He said “every detail of the shabbat experience, from selecting Metro-accessible venues to serving Thai food,” is geared toward the city’s Jewish young adults.

 

Rabbis to Shave Heads to Raise Cancer Awareness

San Diego Jewish World | February 28

During the 125th annual Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) Convention, over 60 Reform rabbis will shave their heads to raise awareness of and funding for pediatric cancer research. As the religious leadership of Reform Judaism, the CCAR Rabbis strive for justice and health in the world for all people.

 

Rabbis Unite to Fight Childhood Cancer

All Parenting | February 20

When blogger and rabbi Phyllis Sommer’s son Sam was tragically diagnosed with childhood cancer, Sommer turned to social media for information and support. And when things got worse for Sam, social media turned to her. Find out how 36 rabbis help fight childhood cancer in a surprising, and inspiring, way.

 

Rabbis Shaving Their Heads for Superman Sam

Barista Kids | February 20

One of the sadder social media stories of last year was Superman Sam, the 8-year-old son of two reform rabbis in Wisconsin who died of leukemia. His story spread like wildfire on Facebook and Twitter, with people around the country posting their “Superheroes for Sam” photos online. Despite the support of a large community and the best work of his doctors, Sam passed away in December, and now a nationwide community of rabbis is participating in 36 Rabbis Shave For the Brave, a fundraising effort for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which works to battle pediatric cancer.

 

Reaching out to atheist and agnostic Jews

Jewish Journal | February 18

This past month Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, was interviewed by theJewish Journal. As the leader of the largest synagogue movement in America he called for more outreach to the unaffiliated, noting that in South Florida the unaffiliated rate is 85 percent. He also wants us to reach out to the intermarried. In another interview with JTA he challenged Jewish leaders to stop “speaking about intermarriage as if it were a disease. It is not.” Also in January I attended the annual convention of retired Reform rabbis (yes, we are actually organized) where the keynote address was delivered by Rabbi Edward Zerin, a 94 year-old sage who is a more creative thinker than the young innovators in our movement. He, too, talked about outreach, but in a far different context. What he had to say applies not only to Reform but to all branches of Judaism with the exception of Orthodoxy.

 

Jewish values at heart of immigration reform

Jewish Journal | February 12

Last May, an unusual delegation arrived at the State Capitol building in Sacramento: a contingent of some 50 Reform Jews, clergy and lay leaders, hailing from congregations across California. They had come to campaign for the Trust Act, a bill designed to limit deportations of undocumented immigrants in the state. A few months after their visit, Gov. Jerry Brown would sign the Trust Act into law as part of a sweeping October push for immigration reform.

Why — And How — I Officiate

The New York Jewish Week | February 10

There has been a great deal of press lately about interfaith marriages within the Jewish community, including an article by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism in which he proclaimed that young people “must hear from their Jewish leaders that interfaith couples can be and are supported in their effort to raise deeply committed Jewish families.”

 

Rabbis Shift To Say ‘I Do’ to Intermarriage

The Jewish Daily Forward | February 3

When Rabbi Daniel Zemel started his career, back in the past century, the last thing he thought he’d ever do was perform intermarriages.

 

Silence of the movie machine

The Sunday Morning Herald | January 25

The film of Sinclair Lewis’s novel, It Can’t Happen Here, about the rise to power of an American Hitler, was abandoned by Louis B. Mayer at the behest of Joseph Breen and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. It was canned on the pretext of ”casting difficulties”. Sinclair Lewis responded, ”I wrote It Can’t Happen Here but I begin to think it certainly can”.

 

Story of Jews who helped King made part of Journey exhibit

HistorcCity News | January 22

The story of the arrests of sixteen Rabbis and one administrator responding to the call of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in St Augustine on June 18, 1964, is not as well-known as it should be, according to Carol Rovinsky who chairs the Justice 1964 Committee of the St Augustine Jewish Historical Society.

 

 

Our Milestones

Rabbi Richard Levine, 75, remembered as influential Jewish advocate

New Jersey Jewish Community Voice | February 19

Rabbi Richard A. Levine, who served as the spiritual leader of Burlington County’s only Reform synagogue for 41 years, died Friday evening at Virtua Hospital, Voorhees, following a long illness. He was 75 years old and was surrounded by his family when he passed away at 8:22 p.m. Rabbi Levine was a well-known, influential and beloved Jewish advocate in South Jersey, Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley.

 

Rabbi David Sandmel to direct ADL Interfaith Affairs

San Diego Jewish World | February 15

A rabbi, educator and scholar who has led interreligious efforts on behalf of the Reform Judaism movement and has spearheaded Catholic-Jewish dialogue in Chicago has been appointed the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Director of Interfaith Affairs.

 

Chocolate’s connection to religion

Sarasota Herald Tribune | February 7

The connection between chocolate and religion is not an obvious one — until you start looking. That’s what Deborah Prinz found when she and her husband were embarking on an extended trip through Europe and indulging their mutual fondness for chocolate in 2006. At a small chocolate shop in Paris, they learned that Jews had brought chocolate-making to France.

 

From corporate job to spiritual leader

The Island Now | February 6

It’s a long way from a corporate job in Indiana to rabbinic studies in Jerusalem and ordination in New York City, but that’s the trip Rabbi Randy Sheinberg took on the way to becoming spiritual leader of Temple Tikvah in New Hyde Park.

 

North Shore Rabbi Mason announces retirement plan

Glencoe News | January 31

An era will conclude next year at Glencoe’s North Shore Congregation Israel as Rabbi Steven Mason has announced he is retiring. Mason, who has served at North Shore since July 1997, sent a letter to congregants this week revealing he will be stepping down in June 2015.

 

Categories
Ethics General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice Statements

Reform Movement Welcomes Ruling in Marriage Equality Cases

Reform Movement leaders issued a statement today in response to the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on marriage equality in the cases Windsor v. United States and Hollingsworth v. Perry. The following statement comes from Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Steve Fox, chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Rabbi Marla Feldman, executive director of Women of Reform Judaism, and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism:

Today’s Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality is a significant victory for the protection of Americans’ civil rights. No longer will lesbian and gay couples remain invisible to the federal government; no longer should there be doubt about the legal legitimacy of these partnerships.

 

The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which we vigorously opposed when it was first considered, has been an offensive and discriminatory measure since its passage in 1996. Since then millions have been denied fundamental rights because of the impact of this ill-advised law. Though that law still stands, today’s ruling in Windsor v. United States promises to lessen some of its most damaging effects. By striking down Article Three of DOMA – a section of the law that the Obama Administration stopped defending several years ago – the Court has enabled legally married same-sex couples to receive the same federal benefits, rights and responsibilities as married heterosexual couples.

 

Sadly, too many couples across America are still denied the fundamental right to marry. The Court’s ruling in Hollingsworth v. Perry effectively expands that right to tens of millions more Americans. The Court missed an opportunity to take a stronger stand for marriage equality today, yet it is a step toward greater civil rights for millions of Americans.

 

There is no more central tenet to our faith than the notion that all human beings are created in the image of the Divine, and, as such, entitled to equal treatment and equal opportunity. Many faith traditions, including Reform Judaism, celebrate and sanctify same-sex marriages. Thanks to the Court’s decision, the federal government will now recognize these marriages as well, while still respecting the rights and views of those faith traditions that choose not to sanctify such marriages.

 

Inspired by our Movement’s longstanding commitment to civil rights, we joined in amicus briefs to the Court in both the Perry and Windsor cases. We look forward to the day when full civil marriage equality is the law throughout the country, reflecting our nation’s historic commitment to the civil rights of every individual. In the meantime, today’s decisions will inspire us to continue to seek justice for all.