Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Wanting to do the right thing

Today I saw a Forward article on a rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue in Maine, Akiva Herzfeld, who wanted to 'do the right thing' for Rabbi Goldfinger, formerly of a Reform temple, who had suffered a terrible brain injury and lost her ability to form short-term memories. Here's a brief excerpt:

“I tried to imagine what it would be like for me to be a female Reform rabbi. I thought, what if I were her and she was me? I would want him to ask me to lead services,” said Herzfeld, 34, who joined Shaarey Tphiloh, Maine’s oldest synagogue, five years ago. He spoke effortlessly, almost motionlessly, his red hair and pale skin standing out against stained-glass windows behind him. Goldfinger sat nearby, listening to the man who helped guide her spiritual ship of state. 

“Women’s issues in Orthodox Judaism are controversial,” he said bluntly, “but it was important to do this for her — for our synagogue to know that we have a rabbi coming and we will respect her, and realize that she continues to be a religious leader even if she doesn’t have the position of rabbi of a large synagogue.”

Goldfinger stared at him with a mix of amazement and deep gratitude.

“I never would have expected you to do that, and the fact that you did —” She paused, sniffling. “You are a bottomless well of empathy.”

Portland is home to a small, close-knit Jewish community where rabbis from the area’s one Reform, one Conservative, one Modern Orthodox, one nondenominational and one Chabad synagogue often work together. That’s exactly what happened on a Friday evening in November 2011, when Herzfeld and Goldfinger stood side by side in Shaarey Tphiloh’s cavernous sanctuary. Seats on both sides of the mechitzah, which separates the men from the women, filled with at least 100 people, far more than the handful or two the synagogue typically draws on Friday nights. With her children standing nearby, Goldfinger led parts of the Kabbalat Shabbat service welcoming the Sabbath, as congregants sang along, helping when her memory failed.

I was there, numerous times, when I was in the shul rabbinate. You want to help someone, you believe you should help someone, but the most meaningful help you can envision is halachically questionable. In a synagogue world where the rabbi is generally "to the right of" the community, this comes up all the time.

Shaking a woman's hand to avoid embarrassing her, or holding it by a hospital bed to comfort her...
Participating in a funeral service in a Reform temple...
Attending a wedding at which the food is not prepared under kosher supervision...

It can be hard to keep your moral compass, and to feel confident that you are making the right decisions. When is it appropriate compromise, and when is it selling out?

Over the years, I found myself asking a simple set of questions: To what extent am I doing this because I think this is the right thing? Of what influence is my desire for people to be happy with me? Might the latter be blinding me to other options?

Of course, answering these questions is harder than asking them...


  1. which is why one needs a mentor or peer who is a rambam type 2 (or 3 if you can find one) friend that you can speak to about it :

    (Avot 1:6) of three levels of friendship: 1) utilitarian partnership (we take care of business and that’s it); 2) beneficial relationship (we benefit each other and we can trust each other with our deepest secrets). 3) the highest lover – where the friends’ desire is towards a common end called “the good” and each one of them wants to help the other so that they can together achieve that “good” as a unit.


  2. The paradigm example is that of Shaul and Agag. Shaul, of course, thought he was doing the "right thing" by sparing the women and children, using the livestock for sacrifices, etc. He was being more merciful that God.
    What makes Orthodoxy different that Heterodoxy is that sometimes we have to say "no" to something, even if it's heartfelt and sounds genuinely right to say "yes" to.

  3. " What makes Orthodoxy different that Heterodoxy is that sometimes we have to say "no" to something, even if it's heartfelt and sounds genuinely right to say "yes" to."

    I truly respect the sincerity of that position. I understand that it derives, at least in part, from an equally sincere belief that the words of Torah are the direct and unmediated word of G-d, not filtered through or subject to any mortal limitations. But it is a point of view which I can never "hold by." It represents a primary reason why I could never be Orthodox. I applaud Rabbi Herzfeld for his exceptionally empathetic action.

    1. If I found my religious beliefs consistently compelling me to do things that made me personally uncomfortable, the least I would do is examine the foundations of my beliefs to determine whether there was any obligation to follow them. If I found no legitimate source for them, I would I would be free to be true to myself.

      Wait, that sounds quite close to "what really happened".

    2. I will just add, the process of examining my beliefs was not without angst. I went into the process hoping and praying that my longstanding beliefs would be validated. It is very stressful to lose one's longstanding faith.

    3. bratschegirl, the problem with most religions these days is that they take the individual and turn him/her into the deity. Thus we have comments like tesyaa's, for example. While I don't doubt she went through a lot of heartache in losing her faith the bottom line was "I don't like 'x', the religion does therefore it's wrong". Fine, if a person wants to be his own god so be it. But proper Judaism is recognizing God as an external, free-willed entity with a superior, perfect moral system which means that any imperfections we see are due to our own limitations. Accepting that is anathema to modern secular values, hence the rejection of it.

    4. Thanks for willfully distorting my words... love you too.

    5. Tesyaa, Garnel-
      I envy both of you your certainty; I find myself closer to bratschegirl's position, albeit with a different conclusion.

  4. What is the big deal? I thought that Rabbi Herzfeld was from a school of thought that believes it is okay for women to lead Kabalat Shabbat? [I am not commenting one way or the other on the propriety of that practice, as I am not qualified to do so.]

    So while his actions make him seem like a very nice and sensitive person (surely a good thing), if they are in keeping with the practices of his teachers and colleagues, I don't see how they fit with the Rebbetzin's Husband's questions or the dillemas described above.


  5. Over the years, I found myself asking a simple set of questions: To what extent am I doing this because I think this is the right thing? Of what influence is my desire for people to be happy with me? Might the latter be blinding me to other options?

    But Chazal (e.g. Avot 3:11, Yoma 86a among many other places) do treat the way people react as a legitimate factor in determining what is right, especially when the matter is rabbinic or minhag. Of course, that is never the only consideration. You can't permit eating pork no matter how much people think you are sticking to outdated standards. But to suggest that the desire to do what people think is nice or proper is not irrelevant to the question of what is right, either.

  6. Joel-

    In the article, R' Herzfeld describes this as "outside of his comfort zone". I understand this to mean that he normally would not have accepted this.

    Mike S.
    Entirely true - which is what makes the question complicated.

  7. Conflict between a moral value and Halacha?

    Basically I hold Moral Intuitions are not some exotic, theoretical entities invented by a few philosophers. They do not merely play some minor role in Torah, and Talmud such that we could excise them and Torah life would go on pretty much the same. Nor is there some alternative, intuition-independent methodology being implemented by some other group of prophets. Ethical Intuitions are nothing but initial intellectual and ethical appearances. That is, they are the way things seem, intellectually, prior to argument.

    But based on the Rambam in the Guide for the perplexed I hold these ethical intuitions need to be awoke by Revelation. That is even the level of ethics before the giving of the Torah could only be by Revelation and so after wards also. Without Revelation man is a primate

  8. I wonder what would have been if the subject of the story would have been leading Shacharit rather than Kabbalat Shabbat? The arguments made here either way don't indicate that there would be a difference, though I would guess that the Rebbetzin's Husband might feel differently?

    1. Jenny-
      I would not have done Kabbalat Shabbat, either; I think I would have found other ways to help her and show her respect.