Three rabbis, many opinions at second Modern Orthodox Symposium

Ariela Feitelberg, BP Staff

Sarah Soroudi, Torah Editor

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In a packed Beit Midrash, three prominent rabbis in the community answered questions Wednesday afternoon on a variety of topics such as women carrying the Torah, how many days of Yom Tov to keep, and their vision for the Los Angeles Jewish community of the future.

Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea, and Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation took turns answering questions, some prepared in advance and some posed by students.  Except for one ninth-grade class, the entire school along with a handful of parents and administrators attended the symposium, which Director of Technology Mr. Yossie Frankel streamed live at www.shalhevet.org.

“I liked it — it’s interesting how rabbis from the same community have different ideas,” said senior Josh Meisel.

Although a student had moderated the panel discussion last year, this time Judaic Studies teacher Rabbi Schwartzberg presented the questions. Each rabbi spoke for about ten minutes answering previously prepared questions, but Rabbi Schwartzberg also opened the floor up to student questions.

The discussion opened with the issue of girls carrying the Torah, which had been a topic of heated debate during the last few months. All three rabbis agreed that halacha, or Jewish law, does not forbid women’s carrying or touching the Torah.

But Rabbi Muskin said that even so, women should not be allowed to carry to the Torah during services in the synagogue, citing the importance of tradition and recalling a conversation he had had with the late Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik, a founder and leader of Modern Orthodoxy.

“[Rabbi Soloveitchik] was bitterly opposed to tampering with tradition in the Orthodox synagogue,” Rabbi Muskin said.

He said that Judaism is based in the home where women play a primary role and can achieve full spirtuality.

Rabbi Topp answered that men should be permitted to carry the Torah down the women’s side of the mechitzah, as is done in his synagogue, Beth Jacob, and that sometimes – depending on the readiness and dynamic of a community – new practices can be implemented.  He called his synagogue’s practice a “compromise” between the competing values of tradition and women’s participation.

Rabbi Kanefsky noted that many traditions had been altered in Orthodox synagogues in recent years, including the melodies used for prayers, the location of the women’s section, and women’s being allowed to shake a lulav.

He also said that feminism can be part of women’s involvement in Judaism as long as it also follows halacha, and that increasing women’s opportunities for spiritual growth is important and goes along with improvements in their religious education.  He said that since it’s halachically okay, not allowing women to carry the Torah would censor them.

“It’s great, and the more opportunities for mitzvot, the better,” Rabbi Kanefsky said.

The second question addressed was how many days of Yom Tov should be celebrated if someone travels to Israel. Rabbi Topp advocated keeping one and a half days, “because our ancestors kept two days, since they weren’t sure exactly [which day was right].  We should follow their minhag (custom).”

Rabbi Muskin expressed that in some cases it was only necessary to keep one day, because people should go by the custom that most of those around them are following. Rabbi Kanefsky said that it was important to keep two days “to affirm the centrality of Israel,” since it creates a difference between those inside and outside the land.

“Except for Yom Haatzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, second-day chag is the arguably most Zionistic holiday we have,” Rabbi Kanefsky said.

At this point the floor was open for questions from the audience, and junior Laura Melamed asked if it was permissible for a Jewish person to visit a church, or whether that might be considered avoda zara, or idol worship.

Rabbi Muskin said that avoda zara is when a person enjoys doing something against his or her religion.

“If you go and are enjoying it and getting pleasure from it, don’t do it,” Rabbi Muskin said.

Rabbi Muskin said he himself had visited the Notre Dame cathedral in France but stayed outside. Rabbi Topp said he had taken “a full tour” of the Sistine Chapel with his wife in Rome, but left before entering the sanctuary.

The final question asked was what each rabbi would like to see change about the Los Angeles Jewish community in the next 10 years. Rabbi Topp answered that he wants “to make Judaism user-friendly – but also challenging…and make a bigger impact on the world.”

Rabbi Kanefsky spoke of a need for a major Orthodox institution of higher education, which would attract more Jewish scholars to the city. But Rabbi Muskin, citing the issue of families not being able to pay for a Jewish education, said that the community should be focusing on strengthening its existing Jewish institutions before creating new ones.

“We aren’t leaders,” he said. “We haven’t dealt with real problems. My dream is that we strengthen what we have and look forward and tackle the real issues.”

Editor-in-Chief Leila Miller contributed to this story.

 

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