Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Laptop in the Beit Midrash?

[Note: This week’s Toronto Torah עלון is now available on-line here.]

One afternoon a few weeks back, while waiting for minchah, I studied a teshuvah (responsum) by Rav Yitzchak Weiss, courtesy of my Bar Ilan CD-ROM – using a laptop. A gentleman strolled past and commented, “Try bringing that… kli [implement] into the Satmar beis medrash, it wouldn’t last a minute!”

I was non-plussed to be addressed that way, but, in truth, I share his sentiment; I am not a fan of having a laptop in the beit midrash, for several reasons:

• I like to make notes in my sefarim – not exactly do-able in a virtual margin, or at least not in the familiar way;

• Laptops, and their power sources, are clumsy, particularly in rooms that were not designed for this sort of use and which therefore lack outlets;

• This is a function of my generation, but I still find laptops stand out in a beit midrash, and distract people from their learning;

• Most of all, a laptop poses a distraction. It provides access to email and to games and to the Internet, and to distractions which can pose as legitimate for seder time (Israel News, updating our Toronto Torah website, working on our weekly Toronto Torah bulletin), but which are not.

Having said that, I now use a laptop in the beit midrash, for a few reasons:

• I have no time at home to write up shiurim and source sheets, so I need to do it in the beit midrash itself;

• I need access to sefarim beyond those stocked in our beit midrash here;

• I spend considerable time developing shiurim on new technologies (next week: Bionic Eyes), and sites like Tzomet have a lot of internet-only information necessary for understanding those halachot.

But I am still troubled – both by the problems I mentioned above, and one additional problem: Ease of Publication. Laptops, through their access to email and to the Internet, make publication entirely too easy.

Read a teshuvah and have a question, or an insight? Send it by email to your thirty closest friends. Think of a novel idea? Post it to your blog. Give a shiur? Post audio and video for all to download. Even without Net access - type up every quasi-chiddush that comes to mind and archive it for your eventual self-published sefer.

The result is that learning becomes shallow, with little thought and little review. Every question, every answer, every thought, is instantly conveyed to the masses, without careful error-checking, analysis, or even editing.

Certainly, other people are not vulnerable to this phenomenon; it’s likely only me. Nonetheless, for me, having a computer around is like being a football coach walking around with a mike on him; it lends itself to hyper-publication.

So I continue to lug my laptop to the beit midrash, but at heart I agree with my pre-minchah heckler; I am not comfortable having this kli in the beit midrash, either.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Taking all of the trouble out of writing a dvar torah

People need to write divrei torah (brief Torah-based speeches) for various occasions - a family celebration, a funeral ר"ל, a board meeting, an introduction to the parshah at minyan, a Shabbos table, etc. Unfortunately, many people have difficulty with this task; their knowledge, their sense of homiletic structure, or their available time may not be up to the task. What can they do?

Many people surf the Internet and print out their favorite dvar torah - meaning, usually, the first item that comes to hand that is less than three pages long (if they are merciful).

A few years ago, I taught a "How to prepare a dvar torah" class, to try to help people use commonly available resources to develop their own divrei torah. Didn't get much interest, although I have certainly had many people come to me over the years for one-on-one help in this area.

I once fantasized about creating a "Build-a-Dvar" seminar with our new Toronto beit midrash, designed along the lines of "Build-a-Bear." We would have each avrech staff a piece of an assembly line. One would work on core texts, the next on questions about the text, the third on source material, the fourth on openers and the fifth on closers - and there you are, dvar torah complete. It would be fun, I think, but I'm not sure how many participants we would get for it...

...Especially since someone else has come up with a new way to help people build divrei torah. I discovered a resource which is new to me:

Their website promises:

On your special occasion your words will reflect your innermost thoughts and feelings and you will bring those you love into your world. We are experts in helping you define your own thoughts, and helping you find your own voice.

Are you having trouble gathering your thoughts?
We can help you express your thoughts and emotions in a clear, meaningful and powerful manner!

Have you run out of time?
Don't worry - we are quick, professional and provide an excellent service! You have enough to do - let us write your speech!

You will stand up before your friends and family with a fantastic speech – which people will remember for ages!

And the site even includes sample divrei torah, complete with the personalized pieces.

I wonder whether the siteowners get any business. I suspect that people who won't write their own are more apt to grab something off the Net, or solicit a relative/Rabbi for help, than to approach strangers on a website. But who knows?

Would you go to them for help?
Would you just grab the latest off of
Would you decline the honor altogether?
In short: What is your approach, when solicited to deliver a dvar torah?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

I love this job

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here!]

It took me a little while (see here, here and here, for example), but I’m really starting to enjoy my position with the new YU/Torah miTzion Beit Midrash (aka “YU Kollel”) in Toronto.

Leaving the rabbinate is still difficult, but as I write this on the eve of our official “Launch,” and after a Shabbaton with our chevra in Thornhill, I can really say that this is turning out to be both challenging and fun.

Among the highlights:

• The great opportunities to work creatively with community institutions, ranging from the shuls to UJA to JCCs to schools to youth organizations;

• The tremendous chance to do this with my brilliant and energetic co-conspirator, Rabbi Azarya Berzon, our scholar-in-residence;

• The chance to work with four incredible avrechim and our Executive Director, each a unique mind, each talented in a unique way, and yet forming a positive, cohesive group;

• The opportunity to invent new ways to help these fantastic four avrechim develop. We are already doing some remarkable things in this area, such as our "Toronto Torah" עלון and a “You Make the Shiur” project I hope to discuss on this blog soon;

• The ability to spend much of my time in learning and shiur-development;

• The opportunity to work with great shul rabbonim across the spectrum;

• The chance to offer all sorts of shiurim, from minchas chinuch to Tanach to creative Jewish writing, in diverse venues;

• The opportunity to do all of this in Toronto, a cosmopolitan community with some 180,000 Jews of various stripes and flavors, an audience that demands creativity and offers me a great stage on which to try new approaches.

…Not to mention, I get to do all of this while living through Thursdays without the megastress I formerly faced, and I get to be with my children for so much more of Shabbos.

Pretty soon, our new website will be ready is now ready; you can preview it here. I hope you’ll let me know how we could improve it.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Food for thought

I have a few minutes to break for lunch, so here's some food to send your way:

1) Our new עלון (weekly dvar torah sheet) is here, with features including "Ha'Am v'Ha'Aretz (the people and the land)," parshah and seasonal articles, an article from Rav Herschel Schachter (via TorahWeb) in advance of his Sunday shiur in Toronto, Questions for thought, and more!

2) New audio on our Beit Midrash website: Introduction to Hosheia, Dina d'Malchuta Dina ("The law of the land is the law") and Use of self-heating meals on Shabbat (Part I). I hope to have video of that last shiur up soon, too (which is important for the demonstration segment at the beginning).

3) And a question:
A short while ago, someone mentioned to me a Kiruv (outreach) goal of "bringing people to greater mitzvah observance."

I don't think of that as my goal. I would be happy if people were more observant, because I believe it's what HaShem wants of us. I think it's good for people. And, of course, it would reinforce my own confidence in the path I have selected.

Nonetheless, I don't consciously direct my energies toward that as an immediate goal. I promote Torah study, I promote personal learning. Whatever comes of that is separate.

So here's my question: Am I doing Kiruv? Or just Talmud Torah (teaching Torah)? And does the difference matter?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Defending Israeli Exceptionalism

Roger Cohen takes exception with exceptionalism, in general. Here he bashed Sarah Palin for exceptionalism, here he bashes Americans for their exceptionalism. I would guess he was also a fan of last month’s New York Times-hosted Op-Ed on Chinese exceptionalism.

Cohen doesn’t like the idea that people or nations should see themselves as special, lest that vision lead them to justify illegal or immoral activity in the name of their outside-the-norm status.

In particular, Cohen doesn’t like the way that Israel sees itself as under siege, since that view grants Israelis – in their own minds – exceptional status, licensing them to do as they see fit in order to survive. As Cohen wrote in the New York Times last week:

Some of Israel’s enemies contest its very existence, however powerless they are to end it. But the death-cult terrorists-versus-reasonable-Israelis paradigm falls short. There are various civilizations in the Middle East, whose attitudes toward religion and modernism vary, but who all quest for some accommodation between them.

One casualty of this view, of course, is Israeli exceptionalism. The Jewish state becomes more like any other nation fighting for influence and treasure. I think President Obama, himself talking down American exceptionalism, is trying to nudge Israel toward a more prosaic, realistic self-image.

In general, the point about Exceptionalism is valid. My problem, though, is that in addressing the Middle East Cohen resembles the carpenter who only possesses a hammer – to him, every problem looks like a nail.

To my mind, blaming the problem on Exceptionalism is simply wrong. Sometimes you are paranoid, but sometimes they really are out to get you.

1. Cohen argues that not everyone wants to destroy Israel. He points to “several (unnamed) Iranian leaders” who will accept a deal with Israel – even as Ahmedinejad continues to call of Israel’s destruction. He points to “various (unnamed) civilizations in the Middle East” who quest for accomodation with Israel, but elides the several who fund terrorism directly, or host it in their lands.

Perhaps these unnamed peacemakers really do exist – but why does that matter? If one nation fires a nuclear missle into Tel Aviv, will the hand-wringing of the others bring back the dead?

2. Cohen also argues that terrorists do not pose an existential threat to Israel, writing, “Some of Israel’s enemies contest its very existence, however powerless they are to end it."

Tell me something, Mr. Cohen: Would you mind if a weaker person only chopped off your arm, since he lacked the power to kill you? Are only existential threats worth opposing?

3. And Cohen’s most offensive line is this: “The Holocaust represented a quintessence of evil. But it happened 65 years ago. Its perpetrators are dead or dying. A Holocaust prism may be distorting. History illuminates — and blinds.”

Cohen ignores the realities of recent history, in his attempt to remove the Holocaust from the debate. Which evil disappeared with the Holocaust 65 years ago, leaving a bright new world in its wake?

• If “Holocaust” represents “enemies trying to destroy Israel,” why not update it with the 1967 invasion of Israel, the 1973 invastion of Israel, the 2006 double-hit of Hamas and Hizballah on separate borders?

• If “Holocaust” represents “enemies being capable of destroying Israel,” why not update it with Iraq’s failed attempt at nuclear weapons in 1981, Syria’s failed attempt at nuclear weapons in 2007, and Iran’s current attempt? (Please don’t tell me you believe their nuclear program is peaceful; if you believe that, I have a mountain in Qom to sell you.)

• If “Holocaust” represents “nations destroying entire popultaions,” why not update it with Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and any number of other genocides in recent years?

The Holocaust was not a once-and-done; it remains, and the reasons for exceptionalism remain. Nations still exist who want to destroy Israel. Israel's enemies are capable of inflicting great harm. And the spirit of the Holocaust lives on, as evidenced on multiple occasions in recent history.

As long as there are nations who want to kill you, even if those nations are the minority, common sense dictates that you keep your guard up. And if that guard means to go outside the law, then you had better do it. Because even should the whole world oppose Ahmedinajad, that wouldn’t save us on the day he would push the button.

(For another take on Cohen’s article, take a look at The Bernstein Blog here.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

What makes a good עלון (weekly dvar torah newsletter)?

This past Shabbos we published our first עלון (weekly dvar torah newsletter).

We wanted to include serious content, but we also wanted to make sure people would not be intimidated and would read it, and we also wanted to include many departments in order to reach different audiences.

As a result, our עלון currently includes:
• Parshah (naturally);
• An article relevant to the season (ie Rosh Chodesh, Chagim, etc);
• A piece on a place in Israel and its Torah-related significance (did not appear in the first issue, because we needed to use the space for an advertisement);
• A brief biography of a Torah leader, along with a dvar torah from that leader;
• Serious questions for thought, with bibliographic references for research;
• Questions for children (did not appear in the first issue, because we needed to use the space for an advertisement);
• A schedule of the coming week’s events (did not appear in the first issue, because we needed to use the space for an advertisement).

And, of course, all of this must fit into an 11 * 17 page, folded double. And its preparation must not take up seder time. Quite a challenge.

You can see our first week’s results here.

Please let me know: What could we add that would make this עלון stand out from other dvar torah publications? What would make it particularly worthwhile – and still fit our space and time constraints?

On a separate note: David Ostriker, from Koshertube, came to a shiur of mine last night (“Informed Consent and Patient Autonomy”) and recorded it; you can find it on-line here. It wasn’t my best ever, but it may be worth watching.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Tale of Two Tales, and of Stereotypes

[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here!]

This is a bit of a rant, and it's on a matter of common sense, so feel free to skip this post.

They tell the following story regarding Rav Jezrel, Rosh Kollel in a small New England town some 30 years ago:
Rav Jezrel was approached by one of his yingeleit, who wanted to leave the beis medrash and enroll in Yeshiva University. Rav Jezrel asked what courses he would be taking, and what would be the content of those courses. The young man explained that he would be studying accounting, biology and Spinoza.
Rav Jezrel shook his head. “Accounting, fine; you need it for a parnassah. Biology, fine; it will help you understand gemara. But Spinoza, in a yeshiva?! Der pasuk shteit “מבית ומחוץ בכופר,” not “מבית ובפנים בכופר!” [a pun on the Hebrew of Bereishit 6:14, reading it as “You shall keep the kofer/heretic from the house and outside,” and not “from the house and inside.”]

They also tell the following story regarding Rabbi Michaelson, a musmach (ordained rabbi) from Yeshiva University:
One morning, in shul, a yeshivish young man was honored with gelilah – the chance to wrap up the sefer torah. He rolled the Torah closed, then attempted to put the cover on the Torah before tying the Torah closed with its gartel.
Rabbi Michaelson quipped, “He doesn’t understand – the gartel belongs on the inside, not the outside. A gartel on the outside is a siman psul [a standard sign that the wrapped Torah is disqualified]!”

Neither story ever happened – I made them up this morning – but they fit the stereotypes surrounding two camps, the yeshivish and the centrist. (I could just as easily have attributed the first story to Rav Gifter and the second to Rav Soloveitchik, the way people tell stories about each, but I would not want to contribute to the already-great canon of misleading stories surrounding them.)

Everyone seems to be aware of these stereotypes, and people believe them and invoke them. Example: Someone commented to me on seeing me reading a teshuvah on my laptop at seder, “You wouldn’t last one minute in the Satmar kollel with that kli (implement)!”

But in real, person-to-person interactions, the stereotypes often fall apart; here in Toronto, I’ve worn my black hat at Modern Orthodox minyanim without anyone looking askance, and I’ve davened at yeshivish kollel minyanim and received an aliyah. I have yet to be treated in a hostile way by either side.

I don’t think we do ourselves any favors with these assumptions. These beliefs intimidate us, convincing us that we cannot cross lines, that we cannot enter a certain minyan or a beis medrash, or even speak to someone who is of different political beliefs, lest they attack or ridicule us. If I think Rav Jezrel won’t respect me, I’m not likely to approach him with a shailah. If I think Rabbi Michaelson looks down on me, I’m not going to attend his shiur. But until I ask them, I won’t know whether there is any substance to my fears.

Prejudice is a natural defense mechanism, a pre-emptive wall protecting us against attacks, but walls work both ways, locking us in as well.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Someone thinks I'm Kreativ

ProfK has honored me with a Kreativ Blogger award; thanks, Prof!

[I've posted my thoughts on blog awards here.]

Here are the rules for this award:
1. You must thank the person who has given you the award. Thanks!

2. Copy the logo and place it on your blog. Done!

3. Link to the person who has nominated you for the award. Done!

4. Name 7 things about yourself that people might find interesting. See below.

5. Nominate 7 other Kreativ Bloggers, link to them and let them know.
I can't fulfill this term of the award; I am certain there are many, many bloggers who deserve it, but I just don't read them. I read the same five or six blogs when I get the chance, and that's about it.

To compensate, though, I will go all-out to fulfill the third term of the award: To list seven interesting pieces of information about me. (I don't know that these are actually interesting, but they are the best I can do.)

1. Embarrassing teenage story: In high school (MTA), I once tossed an orange out the window, during a pre-class game of catch. Yes, it was on purpose. No, I did not mean to hit the (red-haired!) cop on the corner...

2. Formative influences: I can remember almost all of my grade school teachers (HALB) and how they influenced me positively.

3. If I had one hour to do anything in the world that was not one of the 613, I would: Watch a 3-year old play.

4. A hobby: I used to write fiction, although I haven't set aside time for it in years. I have written 3 full-length novels - one about a Torah-observant man trying to reconcile his homosexuality with his observance, one about a man masquerading as a rabbi and taking over a synagogue, and one about a man dying in a nursing home, and his family.

5. Odd chumra: I omit the Name of HaShem in singing zemiros on Shabbos, to remind myself to treat the Name with honor. I say it often in the course of learning, so I feel this precaution is necessary for me.

6. Something I despise: Pretense. Especially in myself. Which happens too often.

7. The great love of my life: Chocolate. Not the expensive kind - the Hershey's/Krackel/M&Ms kind.

There you go - seven items. Thanks, Prof!


I ranted to a friend the other day about the knee-biters (alternatively, kneebiters) we encounter in the Jewish community. I didn’t realize I was coining a phrase; I thought the term already existed.

To clarify: I discovered, in drafting this post, that the word “knee-biter” does exist; it's in Life, the Universe and Everything by Douglas Adams. However, Adams uses it simply to describe an obnoxious person; my usage is more specific, and more colorful. I define knee-biters as small (and small-minded) people who attack those who are engineering great things; they only reach the knees of their betters, and so they simply bite at the reachable knees.

In a sense, knee-biters are the opposite of the far-sighted people who stand on the shoulders of giants; knee-biters busy themselves gnawing those giants’ legs and reducing them to knee-biter size.

My knee-biter is someone who seeks political strife on the grand stage, or who hunts for nits to pick in great and sprawling projects. These people are the death of political, philanthropic and religious leadership, and they are a major reason why potential leaders abdicate early. Further, they overshadow any important message they may carry, through their obnoxious methods. Who needs to live a life exposed to the nasty knee-biters?

Of course, knee-biters are nothing new; the Torah offers several examples. Think of Dasan and Aviram nipping at Moshe’s knees at every turn, or think of the naysayers who undermined various kings, such as Yoshiyahu, who tried to steer the Jewish people on a straight path. The hour is late, or I would give a few examples from the gemara and later Jewish history as well. These people may call themselves “the loyal opposition,” but their loyalty is only to themselves and their egos.

What should we do about our knee-biters?

In my rabbinic days, I appeased them. I understood their need for security, for feeling respected, and tried to find ways to fill that need so that they could then lend their talents to the community in positive ways. Indeed, this was what my friend encouraged. But I find in general that my rabbinic instincts are subsiding somewhat these days (I hope it’s only temporary, due to the stress of starting a new venture), and this is certainly true on the topic of knee-biters; today I would prefer to blow the whistle on their shtick.

What do you say: Feed the knee-biters to help them become more productive, or crush them?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

CNN - Did something blow up in Lebanon, or not?

As our story on the Hezbollah explosion in Lebanon continues...

The New York Times reports on Monday night's explosion in South Lebanon, fairly reporting all views:

A cache of munitions exploded in the house of a local Hezbollah official in southern Lebanon on Monday, producing conflicting reports of casualties. Security officials said the blast in the village of Tayr Filsi, on the southern bank of the Litani River, killed five people, including the Hezbollah official and his son. A Hezbollah spokesman denied that anyone had been killed and said the reason for the explosion was under investigation. Israel said the blast showed that munitions were being stockpiled in violation of the truce that ended a war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006.

The Associated Press says:

A blast at a Hezbollah member's home in southern Lebanon was caused by an exploding shell and injured one person, Lebanon's army said Tuesday.
Monday's night's explosion occurred in the garage of the house, and several Lebanese security officials said initially that the building might have been used to store weapons. If true, that would be a violation of a U.N. resolution that ended the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.
That prompted Israel's president, Shimon Peres, to warn that Hezbollah and what he said was its growing arsenal are turning Lebanon into a "powder keg" and standing in the way of peace between the two countries.
The U.N. resolution that ended the monthlong war called for the disarming of Hezbollah and for an international arms embargo against the militant group. Israel claims Hezbollah has tripled its arsenal since the war ended and that it possesses tens of thousands of rockets.
One senior security official initially said that one person was killed in Monday's explosion in the village of Tayr Filsay, near the southern port city of Tyre. Hezbollah and Lebanon's army, however, said no one was killed and that one person was wounded.
The Lebanese army statement gave no details about the circumstances of the blast or the kind of shell it said caused the explosion.
The U.N. mission and the Lebanese army were investigating. Hezbollah acknowledged the home belonged to one of its members, but would not give any other information.
Hezbollah legislator Hussein Haj Hassan said Israel was exaggerating the incident to "take advantage of it for political interests."
Michael Williams, the U.N. special coordinator for Lebanon, told reporters in Beirut that the mission was concerned about the incident.
"We are keeping a close eye on this because of its relevance to (U.N.) Resolution 1701 while waiting for the outcome" of the investigation by U.N. peacekeepers and the Lebanese army, he said after meeting Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri.
Williams was referring to the Security Council resolution that ended the 34-day Hezbollah-Israel war, which killed more than 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis.

Even the BBC admits the blast occurred (although they believe it's an unexploded Israeli shell from 2006 - big surprise there):

The Lebanese army and UN peacekeepers have begun investigations into Monday's blast at a Hezbollah member's house near the southern city of Tyre.
Hezbollah says that one person was wounded, while other reports said there had been one or more fatalities.
Reports are conflicting about the cause of the blast. Some sources said it happened when an Israeli shell left over from the 2006 war was dismantled.
Other reports say a Hezbollah rocket exploded by accident.
The blast reportedly destroyed a house north of Tyre in the village of Tayr Filsi, on the southern bank of Litani River.
Witnesses quoted by AFP news agency said the owner of the garage, Abdel Nasser Issa, had found a rocket on the river bank and had taken it to his garage where he dismantled it.
The 34-day conflict left the area littered with unspent ordnance dropped during the Israeli bombardment.
Israel said the blast "proved again the presence of weapons forbidden in southern Lebanon".
Hezbollah is banned from conducting military action south of the Litani, under the terms of the UN ceasefire following the 2006 war.

CNN, on the other hand, still has nothing whatsoever on the blast. CNN - Where are you?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Hizballah Explosion

I like coming back home to good news, although I'm not sure which report is accurate:

Munitions store blown up at Hizballah's South Lebanon command center
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report
October 12, 2009, 9:36 PM (GMT+02:00)
A big explosion hit Hizballah's main command HQ in South Lebanon, near Tayr Felsay east of the port town of Tyre, at 0800 Monday night, Oct 12, DEBKAfile's military sources report. Senior Lebanese sources said there were at least 8 people killed or injured in the blast. The command center was located in the residential compound of senior Hizballah operative Saeed Nasser.
Under the terms of the truce which ended the 2006 war between Israel and Hizballah and UN Security Council resolution 1701, Hizballah was forbidden to maintain armed forces or weapons in South Lebanon. To avoid confirming their non-compliance with these terms, Hizballah sources Monday night leaked a story that old munitions left over from that conflict caused the blast.
This was the second explosion in four months of a large Hizballah arms dump in South Lebanon. The first blew up at Hirbet Salim in South Lebanon On July 25.


Unconfirmed reports: Senior Hizbullah member killed in blast
At least two people were killed in an explosion in a building in a small Lebanese village near the coastal city of Tyre, Lebanon, sources said on Monday evening.
The building is reportedly the home of senior Hizbullah official Abd al-Nasser Issa. Security forces in Lebanon reported that both Issa and his son were killed in the explosion. Three other people were reportedly killed in the blast.
Hizbullah denied any casualties, saying that only one person was wounded.
The organization has been warning its senior officials against assassination attempts.
The explosion was heard at approximately 8:30 p.m. in the village of Tyre Falasia. Hizbullah sources told a Lebanese news website that the explosion originated in an IDF artillery shell that was left over from the Second Lebanon War.
Another report stated that the explosion followed a meeting held by Hizbullah officials in the village. Sources in the village estimated that the officials arrived at the home of Issa to practice the preparation of explosive devices or rockets and the explosion was caused by an accident. The sources said a fire started following the explosion and that firefighters had to cut electrical power to the village in order to quell the flames. The Lebanese Armed Forces were reportedly investigating the incident.
The explosion was followed by secondary explosions, an indication that there were large quantities of dynamite in the building.

I'm betting on the Debka Report, especially as Ha'Aretz corroborates it here. CNN has nothing yet.

Mourning and Returning to Work

[Haveil Havalim is here, at the inestimable Jack's Random Thoughts!]

I'm not sure what to do with this item; I'm putting it out here for your thoughts.

Bengals win for 'Coach Zim'
BALTIMORE -- Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers called Mike Zimmer "amazing."
Safety Chris Crocker said it was unbelievable how much his defensive coordinator showed he cared about the team just by showing up for Sunday's game.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis also carried a heavy heart and said there were no words to describe the emotion of what his team had just overcome.
It was yet another intriguing Sunday in "Bengaldom" as Cincinnati took sole possession of first place in the AFC North with a 17-14 victory over the Baltimore Ravens.
The game marked the fifth consecutive thriller for the Bengals (4-1). But the big win was only a backdrop for the heartbreaking situation involving Zimmer, whose wife, Vikki, passed away late Thursday.
Zimmer certainly didn’t have to be in Baltimore Sunday.
According to Lewis, Zimmer went back and forth before choosing to travel with the team. The decision worked out well as Zimmer called a terrific game and the Bengals picked up their biggest win of the season.

I can't comment on this specific case, of course. I don't know the man; I don't know the circumstances of his wife's death; I don't know his culture; I don't know his devotion to, and relationship with, his team and his sport and his livelihood. In short, I don't know anything about this case, and I do know that people mourn differently, so I can't make any productive assessment.

More than that:
I can easily see that being with his team might provide the greatest consolation.
I can easily see that his wife might have asked, or even told him, to do this.
I can easily see that this might be a way to shift focus; perhaps his wife was ill for a long time, and this was his first chance to get away from that.
And it's not as though he was partying; he went to work, in an intense, focused environment.

But this practice - going to work, and in a sporting event (although: is it a 'sporting event' for the coaches?), just days after a spouse's death - just bothers me.

Maybe it's because I view the mourning period as being about more than consolation. Maybe it's because I view mourning as a religious experience. Maybe it's because I am a product of my own cultural milieu. Don't know.

What say you - not really about this case, but about mourning in general?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Barack Obama, Kenneth Wherry and the Nobel Prize

I don't want to be yet another humbug, rain-on-the-parade blogger bashing the choice of President Barack Obama for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Nonetheless: I believe that the President, like most of Washington, is naive about the world's foreign policy issues. He's intellectually sharp, he's well-read, but he is also naive.

It's more complex than that, of course; President Obama's presentation is actually something of a paradox. His words are wonderful, displaying a sense of how the world works, honoring the fact that cultures are truly different from each other in values and not only in language and dress.

But, at the same time, his actions in the Middle East, in the Persian Gulf, in Russia, in China, in North Korea, betray an inability to translate that understanding into action. He acts with the whole world as though they were Westerners, offering them the same incentives and disincentives one would offer a Westerner and anticipating a Westerner's reaction, without any sensitivity to the nuances involved.

* Example: Promises of economic incentives don't move someone whose highest value is his honor and self-respect (China, and trade protectionism; not to mention the fact that the US needs China in a major way. See The Economist here.).

* Example: Incremental assistance doesn't gain the support of people who, because of their cultural values, will settle for nothing less than 100% of the pie (Hamas; see Khaled Meshaal's June 2009 interview with Time's Joe Klein here).

* Example: Threats of economic sanctions don't impress governments who believe their citizens are best-served by leaders who will not bend - and whose own citizens parrot the same (Iran; see CNN's pre-election report here).

* Example: Arguments from law are meaningless to nations who believe the law, or at least its application, is wrong (Israel - see Obama's reference to "the occupation" in his Cairo speech).

The President's practical naivete reminds me of the same trait in Senator Kenneth Wherry, Republican of Nebraska, who said in 1940, "With Gd’s help, we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City.”

See David Brinkley's Washington Goes to War for more examples of pre-WWII Washington's provincialism. A lot of it rings true in Washington today.

If the Nobel is meant to reward good intentions, then I agree - they found someone who is well-intentioned. But I think the standard should not be desire, but success.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Jewish Gardening 101: Grow your own Aravot

I taught a series of classes several years ago on “Jewish Gardening” – we covered topics like grafting, neighborly gardening, work on Shabbat and Yom Tov, and בל תשחית (the prohibition against destroying fruitful items). Those were heavy topics, but here’s a light one: Grow your own Aravos!

[Note: "ערבות Aravot" are willow branches, although they come from specific types of willows, not all willows. I'm not enough of a botanist to be able to explain which willows are appropriate in technical terms. In any case: These Aravot are one of the four plants used by Jews as part of a special ritual during the Succot holiday.]

I am a big believer in growing your own aravot, because (1) It’s easy, (2) It can be done in most climates, (3) The bush is attractive, and (4) Even should you keep the aravah bush small, it would still provide replacement aravot for you during Succot.

I did this for the first time 5 or 6 years ago in Allentown (Zone 6-7), and although I cut the bush back in the spring, after a few years I still arrived at Succot with aravot that were 10-15 feet tall.

First, here’s a simple way to root them:

1) Remove dead leaves from the aravah branches. Use more aravot than you plan to put in the ground, in case some don’t take.

2) Select a two-liter bottle, the wide-mouthed kind used for fruit juice. Important: Cut the collar of the bottle now. Otherwise, the mass of roots that develop during the winter may be too dense to fit them through the mouth of the bottle at the end, and cutting the plastic at that point may also damage the aravot themselves. (I didn’t do this – and the result is that my former home in Allentown has three large aravah bushes which are all rooted in the mouth of two-liter bottles. I cut the bottle safely, but couldn’t cut the collar.) Alternatively - just use a wide-mouthed vase you won't need for several months.

3) On Hoshana Rabbah, fill the bottle 2/3 of the way with water, and put the aravot in the bottle. Make sure all leaves are removed below the water line. (We don’t plant in the ground on Hoshana Rabbah, but this halfway planting may be permissible to avoid loss of the branches. Those who don’t wish to do even this on chol hamoed might preserve the branches in damp paper towels in the refrigerator.)

4) Keep the bottle in a sunny location.

I changed the water whenever it got cloudy, and added small pieces of miracle-gro sticks every 4-6 weeks. The miracle-gro is not necessary, though, and it adds to the need to change the water, to avoid mold.

You should see small root hairs develop fairly soon (several days), and real roots after that. Parts of the branches that are above water will develop leaves, too.

In the spring (I did it in April), take the aravot out of their bottles and plant them in the ground. The leaves may fall off; don't worry about it, they will come back. Choose a sunny site, but make sure it’s far from the foundation of your home; the roots can become quite strong.

And that’s it! I cut them back in the spring, in order to encourage the development of branches lower down, and they came back every year, thank Gd.

Hatzlachah, and let me know how it goes!

[Update 10-21: I set up my aravot right after Succot, and already have roots and leaves. How are yours going?]

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A good minyan is like a well-written novel

As noted in previous posts (such as here), I’ve been trying to find minyanim that work for me, and for my family, in our new home. Part of the challenge is in defining what, exactly, we are seeking.

We’ve defined certain elements already, and now I’ve found a way to express another element: The minyan should be run like a good novel is written. By this I mean that the minyan should have a specific tempo, whether fast or slow or in-between, created and maintained by its ‘authors’ with plan and intent.

Some novels are tightly-written, spare in their details and never veering far from the central plot. The characters are drawn with a minimalist stroke and the underlying themes emerge only in the elements of the action.

Other novels (think Steinbeck, or Ellison) are slow to develop, with multiple strands and dense character development and a rich symbolism.

I tend to prefer the former, but if I have a settled mind and some time then I can appreciate the latter as well. There is a reason for the author’s decision; it is not random, but rather it is selected as appropriate for the story the writer wants to tell.

On the other hand, some novels are lackadaisical, the author changing speed for different parts, sometimes developing characters and other times presenting stick figures, sometimes providing detail to the point of purple prose and other times presenting just the facts, ma’am. I have a hard time with books like this.

The same is true with a minyan, for me; I like minyanim that move from A to B to C without chatter or distraction, but I can appreciate a minyan that takes time for niggun or a long amidah or divrei torah and explanations of tefillah. The pace is a choice made by the members of the minyan, or at least its leadership, as they find the way they can best daven.

I have a hard time, though, with minyanim that are like the lackadaisical novel, in which the chazan rushes through part of the davening and then sings his way slowly through the next, with pauses while the assembled mull which torah to use or who will take over at ashrei, with people coming in late and leaving early and generally seeming unsettled in the davening. To me, this type of minyan bespeaks a slovenly, lackadaisical approach to davening itself, and I have a hard time developing kavvanah in such an environment.

So far, then, I have the following list of criteria: Dedicated to the davening itself, family-friendly, convenient location, a davening-friendly women’s section, and, now, an intentionally defined pace.

The search continues.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Spawning a Kugel Generation

I remember the first time I heard a “this word appears 3 times in the chumash” dvar torah. You know the kind I mean – "This word appears X times, in X different situations, and we can connect all X appearances in order to derive the following lesson..."

I was in my mid-teens, and I was immediately charmed by this approach; I liked the mix of bekiut (superficial scholarship) and creativity, and so pretty much every dvar torah I delivered over the next year or so was built along those lines. Eventually I came to understand the gematriesque flexibility of this approach (“that instance of the word doesn’t count because X” “the word doesn’t quite appear here, but a related root does” “true, this one is אנא and that one is אנה, but still...”), and that turned me off, and so I found other ways to develop ideas.

As we develop our approaches to Torah (and this is particularly true for those of us fortunate enough to spend significant time in our fad-grabbing teens and early adulthood in Torah study), we become enamored of various styles. We read a pamphlet or two and we are instant Breslovers. We hear a Brisker shiur and we suddenly see cheftza and gavra around every corner. We go to Rav Blachman’s shiur at כרם ביבנה and become allergic to acharonim. And so on.

Generally, these fads are fairly benign, but occasionally they can corrupt. Example: The teen who becomes absorbed in mysticism or seeking Torah codes and so loses his opportunity to learn substance in his formative years. Another example: The student who hears a JOFA speaker declare Judaism sexist, and then spends those key formative years ferreting out examples of sexism in Jewish law, lore and practice, instead of studying with a less judgmental perspective.

To these two examples I now add a third: The student who becomes turned on to the approach of biblical criticism as presented by Professor James Kugel, and who now sees support for that approach around every corner.

I witnessed this a short time ago, in a thought-provoking dvar torah delivered by a college student.

Update: I have deleted the specific example used here, because a reader figured out whose dvar torah I was discussing and emailed it around, creating embarrassment for the parties involved.

The dvar torah itself has many evident holes, but my major concern is its method of jumping to a conclusion without evidence. To me, this indicates a closed-mindedness which is a negative byproduct of the Kugel influence, and which characterizes a generation of Professor James Kugel’s fans.

Professor James Kugel is currently famous among Orthodox college students for his “How to Read the Bible.” In this work he explains the methods and conclusions of modern biblical criticism, and he endorses an approach to rabbinic prescription that divorces it from “what the original text really meant,” while simultaneously contending that one may still see meaning and authority in the prescriptions of chazal.

This is exactly what that student did, but without the 700-page book to support it. Without presenting Kugel-level research, without presenting Kugel-level evidence, the student still feels comfortable with his Kugelesque assertion because it is inspired by a popular approach that addresses real problems and is expressed with disdain for the opposition and a certitude normally reserved for the law of gravity.

Well, what of it? I imitated the “three times in chumash” approach for a while, didn’t I? True – but reading chumash through that lens didn’t keep me from studying mishnah and gemara and rishonim and acharonim and midrash. I fear that the student who becomes enamored of Kugel’s approach will be more like the student who sees everything for its Torah Codes potential – he will close himself off to other approaches and to serious textual study.

This student might come to take biblical criticism as a foregone conclusion and ignore that which does not do likewise. He might read the gemara and see its citations of pesukim or its analyses of kri/ktiv and laugh it off. He might study midrash and reject its approach to textual anomaly. And so he might go through the years when he should be accumulating bekiut (superficial scholarship) as well as iyun (analytic study), and instead spend that time thinking he has transcended both with his embrace of modern scholarship.

It's like a secular university student who falls in love with socialism, or with 19th century German philosophy, or with Keynesian economics. These are good fields of study, but if they become your dominant approach before you read more broadly, then you emerge with a very narrow education.

My point is not to accept or reject Kugel's scholarly views; I am not enough of an expert in modern criticism to do either.
My point is not to discuss the question of whether Kugel's view can fit within Orthodoxy; others have already dealt with that question at length.
But I fear that the popularity of his approach, without the scholarship to back it up, will take a generation of groupies down a foolish path.

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here!]

Friday, October 2, 2009


[If you want a quick Yom Tov dvar torah, please go here for my YU/CJF Sukkot To Go article.]

Yom Kippur as a private citizen was wonderful for me, and a real change from Yom Kippur in the rabbinate.

The workload wasn’t all that different – I spoke after Kol Nidrei, leined in the morning, taught a class through the post-musaf break and leined maftir Yonah. But there were three major differences:
• I sat off to the side, out of the public eye;
• I didn’t need to think about Succot preparations;
• I wasn’t the one responsible to make sure davening ran smoothly.

That last one is the key; I was not responsible.

This shedding of responsibility has been the greatest change for me, during Yom Tov. I’m still getting used to it. We flew down to Atlanta, to my in-laws, yesterday, and Gd-willing we will be here through Simchat Torah. It’s very odd, being able to just go somewhere just before Yom Tov, not be responsible for the succah (shul or personal), or for arranging lulav/etrog distribution, or for shiurim and derashot and succah hops and hoshanos and minyan times and hakafos and all the rest.

To be frank, this irresponsibility feels very unJewish.

It feels unJewish because it takes away the Yom Tov preparations that would ordinarily force me into a Yom Tov frame of mind, reviewing halachos and thinking about davening and learning the classic passages of chumash and gemara that deal with the Yom Tov. תשבו כעין תדורו, לולב צריך איגוד, שמחת בית השואבה, תפלת גשם… all of these ordinarily inhabit my mind from the week before Rosh HaShanah, but now I’m rushing to catch up and I feel very unSuccosish.

And it also feels unJewish because I can’t shake the feeling that this is not the way a Jew is meant to live, in terms of communal responsibility and in terms of personal responsibility. It’s great to parachute in and just enjoy Tom Tov … but it’s not right.

A Jew is supposed to build a Succah.
A Jew is supposed to arrange Lulav and Etrog personally.
A Jew is supposed to cook and clean and do the laundry and get the home ready.
A Jew is supposed to volunteer for community responsibility.

So I feel somewhat unsettled, sitting here blogging and taking care of work on-line and preparing post-Yom Tov shiurim/programs instead of running around town inspecting succot and calling people to pick up their lulavim and worrying about whether the schach will stay down on my succah over yom tov and shopping for last-minute items.

Gd-willing, we are going to my family for Pesach, as our second part of this year’s Yom Tov Jaunt experiments. Maybe we’ll find a way to do that one differently, though, to enable me to feel more “a part of it.” More responsible.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Teaching Torah - It and About It

Steve Brizel wrote here about his rebbe, Rav Moshe Besdin zt”l, and his emphasis on learning the substance of Torah rather than talking “about” Torah, as in developing philosophical or analytical or meta concepts.

That’s a sentiment I have also heard, with a bit of a different take, regarding the various kinds of classes found in a Jewish community: Some classes teach Torah itself, and some classes teach about Torah.

The distinction is not necessarily about text vs. commentary, lecture vs. discussion, law vs. philosophy, or intense material vs. fluff, or any other simple dichotomy. Perhaps a good definition is that “It” is a class that focusses on presenting Torah itself, and “About It” is a class or program that is meant to talk about what Torah believes, or to help people feel closer to Torah.

That isn’t to say that the “About It” programs are devoid of substance; I often teach classes that mix both.

Example: Today I taught a class entitled, “Challah: Because the greatest thing IS sliced bread.”

We talked about three lessons to be learned from the way we slice and distribute challah:
1) The host should cut, in order to ensure that the bread is cut and distributed generously;
2) The cut should be from the finest part of the bread, displaying gratitude to Gd by using the best part for the berachah;
3) The bread should not be thrown, as a matter of respect. (Yes, I know that sephardim throw bread, but I don’t know why this should be permitted.)

For all of these items, we brought serious sources (various passages from Tanach, as well as Berachot 46a, Sefer haManhig 223, Sanhedrin 102b, Derech Eretz 4, Shulchan Aruch haRav Orach Chaim 167, Hagahot Maymoniyot to Hilchot Berachot 7:3, Aruch haShulchan Orach Chaim 167:1, Berachot 50b and Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 171:1), as well as some lighter material. The lessons themselves were substantive and practical, too.

But, overall, I’d call the session “About It” rather than “It.”

Another example: I had a meeting today with a community professional and I floated several programming ideas, including bibliodrama and a class which would incorporate study of Tanach and midrash with creative writing. These would involve studying core texts – but would they be “It,” or “about it”?

This split of It/About It has been on my mind for the past week or so, since I presented a class on “Lessons from Addictions Counseling for Teshuvah” (audio available here - .wma file).

To me, that program was dedicated to three purposes:
(1) Helping people with their pre-Yom Kippur teshuvah process,
(2) Raising awareness of JACS and addictions in the Jewish community, and
(3) Attracting people who might come to future classes as well.

Certainly, (1) is an “It” goal, but I didn’t see this as a class teaching about teshuvah itself, and I didn’t present it that way. This wasn’t meant to be my Minchat Chinuch class on technical aspects of the mitzvah of teshuvah/viduy. So I was taken by surprise when an elderly gentleman accosted me afterward and challenged me to explain why I had not presented the Rambam’s steps of teshuvah in the class. “Don’t these people need to know that?” he asked me. “Do you think they know it already?”

My gut reaction was defensive, but I don’t know that he was wrong; I could have included the steps of teshuvah without taking away from the addictions element of the class. On the other hand, the “It” ”About it” balance is subtle, and not something to be taken lightly.

Don’t know; צריך עיון.