Monday, November 30, 2009

Is Judaism a Cult?

First, in the “O Canada” category: The radio is full of reports today that if we make it through the day without measurable snow, we will have the first snow-free November in Toronto since 1847. A snow-free November is an oddity…! And what really gets me is all the interviews with people who talk about how wonderful this is; don’t they know that most of the world doesn’t have snow in November? If they don’t want snow in November, why don’t they go join the rest of civilization outside the Arctic Circle?

Come to think of it, that actually relates to our topic; hold on to that question, please.

Last week I spent some time with a Christian gentleman who marveled to me that Judaism so encourages religious questioning. He was very impressed with our emphasis on religious literacy and serious continuing education for all, and he was certain that this must catalyze highly challenging debate for our religious leaders.

Judaism does encourage debate, of course, but only in certain areas (note: I speak here of traditional observance.); other areas are quite out of bounds:
• R’ Akiva decrees a ban on ספרים החיצונים, works of heresy (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1).
• The mishnah forbids inquiring about “what is above, what is below, what came before and what happens after” (Mishnah Chagigah 2:1).
• Even the Rambam, Maimonides, the heralded advocate of secular study, writes explicitly (Hilchot Yesodei haTorah 4:13) that one may only study the cosmos after “filling his belly” with study of the Talmud, and that one may not study works of idolatrous or heretical thought, lest one be drawn after it (Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 2:2-3).

Certainly, Judaism endorses questioning, but specifically regarding the accepted text of the Torah, the accepted set of commandments, the accepted language of intramural debate:
• “What are we meant to learn from Yaakov and Esav, from Dinah and Shechem, from our ancestors’ slavery in Egypt?”
• “How are Rashi’s comments on the laws of eating a picked fruit on Shabbat resolved with the laws of muktzeh?”
• “What does the Torah say about surrogate pregnancy?”

All of our permitted investigations take as given that the stories of our ancestors are meant to provide ethical instruction, that the principles of Shabbat are internally consistent, that the Torah presents extrapolable guidance on issues far beyond its literal text. We are all required, by law, to begin from an identical starting point of axioms, and only afterward are we able to go for each other’s philosophical throats.

Which leads me to my title question: Is Judaism a Cult?

I define a “Cult” as an ideocentric group which forbids questioning and forbids interaction with those outside its boundaries, lest one be drawn astray.

And based on my principle that certain questions and certain materials are out of bounds, it is possible to argue that Yes, Judaism is a Cult.

I am often bothered by this question, particularly when I see Jews make claims about the special character of our Torah without actually knowing anything about others’ texts and traditions. How could I claim, “There is nothing like our Torah,” if I don’t know anything about any text held sacred by others? How could I say, “That rabbi is so brilliant, he could have been an incredible cosmologist/author/philosopher,” if I know nothing about those fields and their experts? Does that not reinforce the idea that we are, in fact, a closed-minded cult?

It’s like us Torontonians with our snow. People who are not thrilled with a frozen world of November snow, but who would never consider anything else, are cultic as well; it’s the Cult of Canada.

But I do think there is a difference between Judaism’s traditional restrictions on questions, and the cult’s ban on investigation. The result (non-questioning) is the same, but the idea behind it is very different.

I see a difference between a Jewish ideology that says, “This philosophy is designed to address certain issues, but as part of doing so it accepts certain items on faith,” and a cultic ideology that declares, “This philosophy is frightened of being undermined.” Both end up in the same place, but they take quite different routes.

The cult fears being undermined; any question which endangers its security is automatically verboten, not based upon a philosophical argument but based upon the natural danger to its system. That fear is what dictates what is in and out of bounds. One day the high priest could hold forth on a topic – and the next day he could refuse to discuss the same topic, when a question is raised. Rule One of the cult is, “Protect the cult.”

In contrast, Judaism is designed to address certain issues and so deepen and broaden and enrich spiritual life. It is meant to connect human to Gd, to build a healthy and faithful community, to address the way one lives life. It is meant to address peoplehood and individual growth. It is meant to address the place of a person in this world. And those are the areas that are up for discussion and debate within Judaism’s philosophy.

An organic part of that philosophy, though, is the concept of אמונה, of acceptance of certain, non-negotiable givens, elements that are beyond the scope of Judaism’s investigation because of the very nature of human and Deity.

This idea of אמונה, of core belief which is not logical or rational but simply revelatory and accepted, means that topics like “The Origins of Gd,” “Free Will: How do you know?” and “What will happen in the end” are beyond logical discussion. The discussions are off-limits not because they are a threat, but because they have no meaning within this religion and its goals and conversations.

We do end up in the same practical place as the cult – note the Rambam’s language above, “lest one be drawn after it” – but that’s for causes pragmatic rather than philosophical. The core difference remains: A cult’s philosophy is to protect itself. Judaism’s philosophy is to answer great questions and inform lives. And therein lies the difference.

Enough bloviation. Am I wrong? What do you think?

[Note: Part II is here.]

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Torah Tips for a Healthy Marriage?

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here!]

The Torah’s malleability frustrates me at times; the line, “הפך בה והפך בה דכלא בה (Turn it and turn it, for all is in it)” is often invoked as an excuse for abusing original grammar and intent in an attempt to force specific meaning from the ancient sentences.

At the same time, who can deny that this malleability is a rabbi’s homiletic friend? Regardless of the theme I want to address, there’s always something relevant in the Torah, and (often) it can be read my way. Not with the rigidity required for halachic analysis, but certainly on a level sufficient for homiletics.

With that in mind, I pose the following question: What marital advice can you deduce from the Torah?

Example 1:
Advice: Marriage must involve a couple's on-going attempt to know each other, with real time and energy devoted to this purpose.

Source: In Hosheia 2:21-22, HaShem pledges all manner of goodness to the Jewish people, His prospective spouse. He’ll give us righteousness, justice, kindness and mercy. What need we provide? “וידעת את ה' (You shall know Gd).” As the Rambam notes in Sefer haMitzvot, this knowledge leads to true love.

Example 2:
Advice: In a marriage, rights don't make up for wrongs. Giving a gift does not make up for hurting the other.

Source: Hosheia 3:4-5 and 6:6, as well as Yeshayah 1 and numerous other passages in the the prophets, tell us that korbanot cannot be used as a make-up gift for sin, until sin itself is abandoned. Cf Moreh haNevuchim 3:32 - korbanot are intended to help us achieve a union with Gd, but they are not a substitute for that union.

So let's hear it - what marriage tips do you draw from the Torah?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Ever since my Remembrance Day post, I’ve been thinking about a post on sensitivity to the left vs. sensitivity to the right, but it’s not quite there yet. That, in addition to the day-to-day schedule and my travel to New York this past Sunday and Monday, has slowed down my blogging. A quick item, though, since I haven’t posted in a couple of days.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Blame – why we need to blame people, even ourselves, for the various problems of our lives. Children are always looking for someone to blame, largely as a way to shift responsibility away from themselves. As we get older we also learn to blame ourselves, sometimes productively and sometimes unproductively. We blame Gd, too, in ways both subtle and direct, and this can be a demonstration of sincerest faith or a blasphemous attack.

The neviim talk at length about blame, because as a nation, we blame Gd for our problems, we blame luck for our problems, and we rarely blame ourselves/our errors for our problems. The result is that we go looking for solutions in all the wrong places; see Hosheia 7 (which comes to mind only because I just taught it yesterday; there are many other excellent examples in Tanach).

Blaming can accomplish great ends, or it can be self-destructive, or it can simply affirm our sense that there is an order, purpose and meaning in life.

Casting blame on others can be an attempt to make ourselves feel better about ourselves, but I suspect that approach doesn’t work, and in fact induces frustration and shame, in anyone with a modicum of self-awareness.

Not to mention, blaming the wrong party guarantees you won’t solve your problems, and possibly make them worse. Which brings me to a simple event from Monday night.

My Continental flight from Newark to Toronto was supposed to depart at 8:30 PM… which became 9:00… which became 9:10 PM… which became 9:40 PM… and we eventually took off somewhere around 10 PM, to arrive in Toronto about 11:30 PM. By this time I was good and tired, tired enough to forget that I had flown out of Toronto on a different airline, from a different terminal, so that my car was not at Terminal 3, but at Terminal 1.

I headed for the parking lot and its self-pay machines, and inserted my ticket in the first slot I found. Rejected. Being the person I am, though, I decided to try a second machine; blame that first machine for its incompetence, of course. (Yes, I entirely ignored the model ticket on the machine, which very clearly did not resemble my own ticket.) Strike two – it was rejected. Undaunted, I blamed both of those gadgets and tried a third machine. Yes, this was clearly the fault of two defective machines.

The third machine liked my ticket so much that it decided to keep it. Push Cancel. Nothing. Mull kicking machine, decide against. Push call button, speak to the nice attendant, certain that it’s the machine’s fault. Wait. Wait. Wait. Attendant comes, opens machine. Attendant patiently explains that this ticket is for Terminal 1 parking, not Terminal 3 parking. Thank attendant very much for his time at midnight, and head for train to Terminal 1 and my eventual arrival at home at about 1 AM.

Whom do I get to blame for getting to sleep so late? Myself, of course. Well, Continental for the delay, myself for the parking mess.

And the lesson: Be careful where you cast blame for your problems, or you’ll end up digging your hole even deeper.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Natan Sharansky’s Aliyah

Mother in Israel has this week’s Haveil Havalim out here, and she mentions Russian olim to Israel:

When we arrived in the early 90’s, large numbers of educated immigrants from the former Soviet Union had difficulty finding employment. In light of this, an Israeli satire show had a skit about a Russian speaker cleaning the streets. An Israeli comes over to him and says, “In Russia, you were a doctor. How come you’re sweeping streets?” The immigrant replies, “Protektzia.“

I was going to post about something else tonight, but with that lead I had to mention that this morning I sat in shul with my kids and was privileged to watch Natan Sharansky be oleh to the Torah.

[As someone observed to me this morning, one of the perks of being part of our Toronto Beit Midrash is that the world’s Jewish leaders come here. It’s true, and it definitely adds to the experience of our avrechim. Last week it was R’ Mordechai Greenberg, Rosh Yeshiva at Kerem b’Yavneh. Next week it will be R’ Chaim Druckman, Gd-willing. This morning was Mr. Sharansky.]

I turned to my older son after Mr. Sharansky’s aliyah and told him, “When I was younger than you are now, I went to rallies to free him from a Soviet prison. Now I can hear him make a berachah on kriat hatorah!”

Of course, that necessitated an explanation of what the Soviet Union was, and why they imprisoned Jews, etc. Similarly, this afternoon I heard one collegiate describe Sharansky as, “A big Israeli.” The whole “Let My People Go” movement is an historical footnote now.

After davening, Mr. Sharansky delivered a dvar torah on ויותר יעקב לבדו. He riffed on ויותר (as in ויותר יעקב לבדו – Bereishit 36:25 – “Yaakov remained alone”) as a word associated with being מוותר, to forgive one’s rights. After apologizing for what is clearly a homiletic, he made the point that עשו always expects the Jew to be מוותר, to give up element after element of what makes him special, what makes him a Jew. Yaakov, indeed, was willing to give up much, sending Esav a gift, calling Esav “my master,” etc. But the world always wants more; the world always wants the Jew to be מוותר on piece after piece, until nothing is left.

Mr. Sharansky applied the theme to peace talks and Israel, as well; despite all sorts of offers, the bottom line for the world is that Israel cease to exist as a Jewish state. But like Yaakov, and like the Jew in a Soviet prison, Israel will not find success by granting that request. Survival, and a thriving future, will come when the Jew stands firm in the declaration that on some things we simply cannot be מוותר.

A simple lesson, to refuse to be מוותר, and a dvar torah anyone could have given – but coming from someone who lived it, the message meant much more.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Elizabeth Gilbert, Oprah, Hosea and Embarrassing Ringtones

A couple of mornings ago, a cell phone rang during shacharit (morning services). The owner fled the room, crushing the phone against his suit in an attempt to smother a Latin-sounding rhythm that reminded me of the cars cruising the streets of Washington Heights. You know the ones I mean – with the tinted windows, the purple-illuminated details,the chrome-lined license plates. I can’t wait to see them again on my trip to NY this coming Monday. But I digress.

The red-faced owner of the cell phone was embarrassed, obviously – but I think his discomfort came more from the specific ringtone than from his exposure as the sort of callous, less-than-perfectly-pious person who would leave his ringer on while praying to the Almighty. He was embarrassed to be found out in that staid company as a lover of Colombian rhythms, or, more precisely, as one who would whimsically include those beats on his cell phone, as a calling card (so to speak).

And witnessing this, I remembered a TED video I saw a couple of weeks ago, featuring author Elizabeth Gilbert. She spoke both entertainingly and compellingly about the morbid fate of many of our creative geniuses: madness and death at an early age. Ms. Gilbert posited - to do her the disservice of compressing twenty minutes into one sentence – that our radiant stars burn out because we allow them to feel, and we encourage them to feel, that they are responsible for their own creativity.

In bygone days of Muses and Faeries, artists and poets and musicians could blame the spirit world for their failures, and this shifted a burden from their shoulders. The small price was that they shared their successes with such spirits, but the benefits included the ability to dissociate themselves from their lowest creative moments. Now, artists have nowhere to hide, no one to blame for their blocks, but themselves, and the stress erodes their confidence, their self-image, and, ultimately, their ability to survive.

It’s an interesting idea, and I won’t deny it has some resonance for a man who spent 12 years developing speeches at deadline on an at-least weekly basis, to say nothing of thousands of classes during that span. But I see another element in the madness of our artists: The fact that they divulge their deepest selves on stage, before the world, and call the world to see them, to know them, and, hopefully, to love them. They live on stage, and in the past century more so than ever before, not only in publications of their own choosing but on Oprah's couch [at least until she ends her show in September 2011, anyway], in tabloids, on the red carpet and in re-hab. They are exhibitionists, and what exhibitionist does not live, and die, for his audience?

And the creator’s exhibitionist tension is actually twofold: First, to find that element within that is authentic, true and real and free of contamination. And second, to display that element in a way that will communicate its truest self to the world beyond. And then, after all of that – the creator must worry whether she got it right in that spotlight, and whether others will get it right, and whether they will, having gotten it right, appreciate it as beautiful or reject it as ugly, dirty, something that should have been left beneath its rock.

It’s an idea at the core of the book of הושע (Hosea), which I’ve been teaching for the past several weeks. Repeatedly, Gd calls upon the Jews to know – וידעת את ה', Know Me, Love Me. Like the old Who song, “See me, heal me, touch me, feel me.” Gd calls upon the Jews to know Him, and reacts to their willful disregard with, by turns, displays of cynicism, grief and fury. [No, I am not anthropomorphising Gd; hence the term “displays of” above. No heresy here.]

It’s the idea at the heart of all love relationships; והאדם ידע את חוה אשתו, Adam knew Chavah, and so lover knows beloved.

And it’s what drives creators off the deep end, this display of what they believe to be their inmost selves, and the sandwich board they wear, marching up and down Fifth Avenue, “Know me!”

And it’s what embarrasses the fellow with the quirky ringtone, because he has just accidentally displayed his normally-hidden quirkiness to fifty or sixty of his sort-of-close friends, people who had never been admitted into that sphere.

The answer for him, of course, is to avoid ringtones if he doesn’t want to have people hear them. If he is not ready to let the world know of his love for Ricky Martin, Nickelback, the B-52s, Deep Purple, Def Leppard or Lady Gaga [to quote a few recently-heard jingles], then he would be wise not to publish it.

But if he is going to publish it, then I pray for Divine aid on his behalf. I applaud the man who reaches into his own depths and draws up a shard and says to the world, “This is me.” Whether you take Elizabeth Gilbert’s version or mine, Creativity is a dangerous pursuit, and I wish its practitioners all the best.

Motion Sensors on Shabbat

[Our "Toronto Torah" for this week is now available here.]

I am mulling a post on Embarrassing Ringtones and Personal Creativity... but while I think that one through, here's an article from this week's Toronto Torah, a summary of a shiur I delivered last night on "Motion Sensors on Shabbat."

Note: This abbreviated discussion is not intended as a halachic ruling. Ask your posek for guidance.

May one knowingly enter a motion detector’s field on Shabbat, if he does not intend to turn on a light, cause a door to open, etc?

We discussed four different types of technology – photodetector, ultrasonic, microwave and passive infrared – in order to familiarize ourselves with the relevant halachic considerations. We then discussed four arguments for leniency in cases where one does not benefit from the light, the opened door, etc:

I am not performing an act of melachah
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Shabbat 13:6) permitted closing the door of one’s house for the sake of normal security, even if a deer is inside the house and will be trapped when the door is closed.

The Rashba (Shabbat 107a) explained that one only violates Shabbat if he performs a melachah via an action ordinarily associated with that melachah, and closing a house’s door is not an act of trapping.

Based on the Rashba, Rav Wosner, in a series of responsa (such as Shevet haLevi 3:97), permitted triggering a motion detector, arguing that walking is not an action normally associated with the melachot triggered by the detector.

However, Rav Wosner would not permit an action performed with actual intent to execute the prohibited melachah, though. Therefore, one may not walk through a sensor’s field with intent to thereby turn on a light.

[Someone asked whether one could use the same rationale to permit opening a refrigerator even if the light bulb remains lit, since opening a door is not an action normally associated with turning on a light. This is an interesting question.]

I do not care about the light
A gemara (Shabbat 103a) ruled that one is not biblically liable for improving someone else’s field on Shabbat by picking grass. This is understood to mean that one is not biblically liable for prohibited melachah if he has no personal stake in the outcome, even if the prohibited melachah is an inevitable result of his actions (פסיק רישיה דלא איכפת ליה).

Rav Moshe Stern (Beer Moshe VI Kuntrus Electric I #82) contended that there would be room for additional leniency if the prohibited melachah involved was itself prohibited rabbinically, rather than biblically.

Based on this argument, one could walk through a sensor’s area on Shabbat, so long as he did not benefit from the light that was triggered.

The light is not an inevitable result of my action
The Tur (Orach Chaim 316) wrote that one may close a box on Shabbat even if flies might be inside, without concern for the prohibition against trapping. The Taz (316:3) explained that (a) Flies might escape when the box is opened, and so they are not truly trapped, and (b) The person closing the box does not know with certainty that flies are inside. Regarding this latter argument, trapping is not considered an inevitable result (פסיק רישיה) of closing the box, and since one does not intend to trap, one may close the box.

Rav Moshe Kessler (Or Yisrael אדר ב תשנז) contended that walking through a motion detector’s field is like closing the box – one does not know whether any given step will trigger the detector. As with the leniencies we cited previously, though, one could not rely on this leniency if he intended to turn on the light.

I only trigger the light indirectly
A gemara regarding extinguishing a fire on Shabbat (Shabbat 120b) rules leniently regarding indirect action (גרמא). In a case of potential loss, or in a case in which one does not intend to perform the prohibited melachah, indirect causation is permitted.

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Minchat Shlomo 1:10:6) considered this in discussing opening a refrigerator door on Shabbat, allowing warm air to enter and, ultimately, triggering a motor to cool the refrigerator. Rav Shlomo Zalman noted that an action is termed “indirect” if there is a lapse of time between the action and the resulting melachah, and so one may open the refrigerator if he does not intend to turn on the motor.

Given that motion detectors allow time to pass between their stimulus and their reaction, the one who walks through a sensor’s field has only performed melachah indirectly, and therefore there are grounds for leniency, assuming that there is no intent to set off the detector.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Betrayal and Bereishit

I’m preparing a parshah shiur for tomorrow, and I’ve chosen Bereishit and Betrayal as a theme.

I define “betrayal” as failure to honor a relationship of trust, whether that trust is natural to the relationship (ie family) or whether trust has been earned (ie by an act of kindness).

I am not including general deception here, like Avraham and Sarah hiding their relationship from Pharaoh. In adversarial relationships, one is not required to divulge all of his information.

So I just developed a quick list of the betrayals involving the Avot and Imahot (patriarchs and matriarchs); it’s a fascinating list:

• Avraham abandons his father and family (Bereishit 12)
• Hagar is elevated by Sarah, and then she abuses Sarah (Bereishit 16)
• Sarah first matches up Hagar with Avraham, and then evicts her (Bereishit 21)
• HaShem tells Avraham to slaughter Yitzchak, the son he had been promised as an heir (Bereishit 22)
• Avraham attempts to slaughter Yitzchak (Bereishit 22)
• Lavan and Rivkah’s mother renege on their pledge to send Rivkah to Yitzchak (Bereishit 24)
• Avimelech pledges protection for Yitzchak and Rivkah, but then they are mis-treated by Avimelech’s people (Bereishit 26)
• Esav reneges on his sale of the birthright to Yaakov [assuming this blessing is the same as the birthright Yaakov purchased] (Bereishit 27)
• Rivkah betrays Yitzchak’s and Esav’s trust in her, substituting Yaakov for Esav (Bereishit 27)
• Yaakov betrays Yitzchak’s trust in him (Bereishit 27)
• Rivkah betrays Yitzchak’s trust in her regarding her desire to send away Yaakov (Bereishit 27)
• Lavan and Leah betray Yaakov and Rachel with the substitution of Leah for Rachel (Bereishit 29)
• Lavan betrays Yaakov regarding his salary (Bereishit 30)
• Rachel takes Lavan’s terafim (Bereishit 31)
• Shechem betrays Dinah’s affection (Bereishit 34)
• Shimon and Levi betray the trusting relationship they affected with Shechem (Bereishit 34)

And then, of course, we start on the sale of Yosef, and Potifera’s scam, and Yosef’s concealment of his identity, etc.

I’m sure there are more I’m missing; please add.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Banning Muslims and Jews from the US Military

[Note: Haveil Havalim is here!]

I am a big fan of the Treppenwitz blog; David Bogner often makes me laugh as well as think.

The other day he commented on Ed Koch's suggestion that Muslims in the US military be exempt from fighting wars against Muslim countries. An excerpt:

I don't see the value in allowing Muslims to serve in the U.S. military if the only place in the whole world that their expensive training can be utilized is along a 155 mile stretch of the 38th Parallel. And even there, with North Korea, Syria and Iran being all chummy... well you see the problem.

I hear his point (which is somewhat exaggerated, of course; there are a few US deployments that relate to conflicts involving non-Muslim entities). Still, it makes me uncomfortable. I am reminded of the Jewish response to Napoleon's sixth question to his Sanhedrin:

Question: Do Jews born in France, and treated by the laws as French citizens, consider France their country? Are they bound to defend it? Are they bound to obey the laws and to conform to the dispositions of the civil code?

And part of the Jewish response:
The love of the country is in the heart of Jews a sentiment so natural, so powerful, and so consonant to their religious opinions, that a French Jew considers himself in England, as among strangers, although he may be among Jews; and the case is the same with English Jews in France.
To such a pitch is this sentiment carried among them, that during the last war, French Jews have been seen fighting desperately against other Jews, the subjects of countries then at war with France.

(For the full text, go here.)

I believe many modern observant Jews would not follow this pseudo-Sanhedrin's formulation, in the absence of a direct threat. So should Jews be banned, publicly declared persona non grata, as well?

In truth, David does distinguish between Jews and Muslims. He notes that the US deploys a significant portion of its forces in conflicts involving Muslim countries, but does not currently deploy forces against Israel - and that even were such a thing to happen, that would still leave many other places a Jew could serve. According to this argument, the issue is not moral philosophy, but military utility; a Muslim will have few places to serve, a Jew will be able to serve more. The Jew would be the equivalent of a Catholic during a conflict against Vatican City; he could avoid this war, and still fight in others.

But I think this still misses a key point; the issue is fundamentally about morality.

I believe that what offends the American mind about Nidal Malik Hasan, even before the horror of his mass murder, is his distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim. Apparently, he is comfortable with the idea of going to war for the US to kill Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus or atheists, but he would not be comfortable killing Muslims. Loyalty to the US can justify killing anyone except a Muslim.

That Muslim/non-Muslim distinction is what brings about the call to exclude Muslims from the US military - the fear that they are Muslim first, and American second.

And in this regard, Jews may be no different - we might have difficulty shooting at a co-religionist over a territorial dispute, too. Therefore, an exclusion of Muslims must also lead to an exclusion of Jews. That's why this idea makes me uncomfortable; I'd rather see an exclusion from this war rather than an exclusion from the military.

One question, though: Why are Protestants and Catholics different in this regard?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Ethics of Second-Hand Smoke

I'll be delivering a shiur on "The Ethics of Second-Hand Smoke" on Sunday evening. Gd-willing, I'll post the audio and video links when they become available, but here is the source sheet.

[Update: The audio is now available here. It wasn't as strong as I would have liked - I'll blame it on fatigue - but I think it's coherent.]

[A question: I've often wondered whether posting source sheets would interest people. I'm doing it for this topic because it's of interest to many, and because the shiur itself should be available on-line soon after I deliver it. Would on-line source sheets interest you in the future?]

Seven questions
I am not the only smoker!
It’s a public space
It’s not constant
It was always accepted
They are hyper-sensitive
Financial liability
How far must I go?

Avoid Harming Others
1. Talmud, Bava Batra 22b
Mishnah: We distance a ladder four cubits from a dovecote, to avoid allowing a predator to leap. We distance a wall four cubits from a drainpipe, to permit [the owner] to place a ladder upright.
Gemara: Shall we say that our mishnah disagrees with R’ Yosi, who said, ‘This one may dig within his space and this one may plant within his space?’
Even R’ Yosi will agree; Rav Ashi reported that when he was in Rav Kahana’s yeshiva he heard Rav Kahana declare that R’ Yosi agreed regarding one’s own arrows. Here, too, at the same moment that he places the ladder, the predator may be sitting in a hole and it may leap.
But is this not indirect causation? R’ Tuvi bar Matnah explained: This teaches that indirect causation of harm is prohibited.
Rav Yosef had date-trees, and blood-letters would come sit beneath them, and ravens would come to eat the blood. The ravens would sit in the trees and ruin the dates. Rav Yosef told the blood-letters: Remove the kor-kor from here!
Abbaye protested: This is indirect causation! Rav Yosef told him: R’ Tuvi bar Matnah said, “This teaches that indirect causation of harm is prohibited.”
But did the blood-letters not have a chazakah? Yes, but Rav Nachman cited Rabbah bar Avuha to say that there is no chazakah for harm.
But did we not learn that Rav Mari says this is specifically for smoke, and Rav Zvid says this is specifically for a latrine? Rav Yosef replied: I am of a delicate mind; for me, these are like smoke and a latrine.

2. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Sh’cheinim 11:5
If a person has established a practice of working with blood, corpses or similar items in a certain place, and ravens and similar creatures come for the blood and eat and disturb neighbors with their voices and chirping and with the blood in their feet as they perch in trees and dirty the fruit, then if the neighbor is a demanding person, or is ill such that the chirping harms him, or is someone whose fruit is damaged by the blood, then the vandal must cease to perform that work or must distance himself to the point that he will no longer cause harm. Harm like this is like the scent of a latrine, and similar practices for which there is no chazakah.
Similarly, if a member of a side-street or a yard becomes a blood-letter and others do not protest, such that he develops a chazakah, and people enter and depart to make purchases and they are silent, he does not have a true chazakah with this and they may always object and say that they cannot sleep from the sound of the traffic. This is an on-going harm, like smoke and dust, and the Gaonim ruled thus as well.

3. Lechem Mishneh, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Sh’cheinim 11:5
How did he derive the idea that they cause harm with their voices and chirping? If it’s because Rav Yosef mentioned the kor-kor, which sounds like the cry of a voice, that was still insufficient; it was his delicacy of mind from the dirtying of the fruit!
Perhaps “delicacy of mind” includes someone who is ill, and harmed by the chirping, and since one could explain Rav Yosef in two ways – chirping or dirtying – therefore he wrote his explanation, as he does in some places, because both appear to him to be true as far as the law.

But isn’t it a group effort?
4. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Chovel uMazik 1:13
If two people harm a third as one, both are liable and they divide up the payments between them.

It is not constant
5. Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 155:37
Mechaber: When we mention smoke, that is specifically constant smoke, like bakers’ and craftsmen’s ovens. An individual’s oven for baking bread, or a stove, where the smoke does not remain for the bulk of the day – that is not constant. If one were to see it and be silent, he would then forgive it, and he could no longer protest.
Rama: Some say that one may not even complain initially for smoke that is not constant.

6. Siftei Kohen to Choshen Mishpat 155:19
The Mechaber appears to me to be correct, for the Rama wrote in Darkei Moshe, “Terumat haDeshen (Piskim uKtavim 137) rules thus from the Mordechai and Hagahot Maymoniyot and Hagahot Ashri, and it appears that so we should rule, for Terumat haDeshen was later and is a sage upon whom one may depend. This is against the Beit Yosef’s position that one could reject their view before that of Rav Moshe haKohen, who was a well-known authority.”
Had he examined the rulings of Terumat haDeshen himself, he would not have written this; this ruling was not even clear to Terumat haDeshen himself. Regarding this lesson he drew from the Mordechai and Hagahot Maymoniyot and Hagahot Ashri, he concluded, “Still, I would not call you mistaken in your ruling, since you found explicit corroboration in the rulings of Gaonim, and you already know that I do not normally analyze closely when we find explicit rulings of the Gaonim.” It appears that this is why the Beit Yosef ruled with Rav Moshe haKohen.

No one ever protested before
7. Tosafot, Bava Batra 23a בקוטרא
It appears to the R”I that this lack of a chazakah is specifically the smoke of a kiln, which is great and which causes great harm, as seen in Bava Kama 82b, “One may not establish kilns in Yerushalayim. Why? Because of the smoke.” Also, it was specific to their latrines, which were above ground and smelled more; ours are covered, and so a chazakah would be possible.

8. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Sh’cheinim 11:6-7
6: If a person develops a chazakah engaging in a type of harm for which a chazakah is possible, such as opening a window or diverting a stream or failing to distance himself properly from others, and he claims, “You told me to do this,” or, “You forgave it to me after you saw this or after the harm was noticeable, and you were silent and did not protest,” and the victim says, “Now I see it, and I didn’t know before,” or “When I saw it I did protest, and you said you would distance yourself or halt, and you pushed me off from day to the next so that you could establish your chazakah,” in all such cases the burden of proof is with the victim. In the absence of proof, the vandal should swear an oath of contradiction, and be exempt.
7: If a person develops a chazakah engaging in a type of harm for which a chazakah is not possible, such as smoke or a latrine or similar items, and the vandal claims that he contracted with the victim to permit it, the burden of proof is with the vandal to demonstrate that there had been an agreement. In the absence of proof, the victim should swear an oath of contradiction that there had been no contract, and the vandal will remove his harm.

Changing policies in mid-stream
9. Responsa of Rashba 3:162
I am inclined toward the view of Rabbeinu Yaakov, that all of these types of harm are harms to the body, and one may say, “I thought I could bear it, but I cannot bear it.” So appears to me from the mishnah about a store in a yard, and from Rav Yosef’s case… However, most of the sages of Israel, and my masters, did not agree… and therefore, in practice I say that one who has already opened his window or brought his smoke or latrine nearby would not be obligated to stop them up or remove them.

10. Netivot haMishpat Chiddushim Choshen Mishpat 156:7
“They are ill” – It appears that if one was healthy and then became ill, chazakah would not be effective. Being ill makes the harm like smoke or a latrine.

Abnormal sensitivities
11. Talmud, Pesachim 113b
We have learned, “Three people’s lives are not life: Merciful people, angry people and people of delicate minds.”
Rav Yosef said: All of these apply to me.

12. Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 155:41
If it is known that a plaintiff cannot bear something, then there is no applicable chazakah even if others could bear it.

Financial Liability
13. Ketzot haChoshen Choshen Mishpat 1:7
Regarding actual monetary liability, even though we do not adjudicate a case today because it is rare or because there is no loss of money involved, still, one must pay in order to satisfy Heaven. One who does not pay is a thief. But regarding fines, satisfying Heaven is irrelevant, for fines depend on the court finding a person guilty…

14. How far must a smoker go?
Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 155:20
Rama: Regarding all harmful agents where the required distance has not been clarified, one must distance to the point that experts say no harm will be caused.

A few websites with key sources on halachot of smoking
References in my HaMakor
The RCA's Paper on Smoking
The Jewish Observer

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cantors behaving badly

Some dozen years ago, I was hired by a great mentor of mine to translate the Aruch haShulchan's Laws of Shabbos. It was an incredible learning opportunity, on many levels - and one of those was intense exposure to R' Yechiel Michel Epstein's views on halachic debates of his day.

Here is one of my favorite passages, on disobedient chazzanim; it came to mind today because I included it in this week's Toronto Torah, in our Biography/Torah in Translation section:

For some decades, due to our great sins, a tzara'at has spread among cantors. These cantors hold a small silver fork or a lump of iron (termed kamar tone) when standing before the platform on Shabbat and Yom Tov, for setting the song’s pitch. The cantors place the fork between their teeth, and they hear a musical sound; they then know how to arrange the song.

This is, literally, a musical instrument, designed to produce music. We do not have the power to protest their claims that they cannot generate music without these instruments. Due to our great sins, our generation is loose and the masses support these cantors. Not only are we unable to protest, but even exiting the synagogue causes a fight, as is known.

Perhaps it is possible to suggest that this device is not among the “musical instruments” which our sages prohibited, for the following reasons:

•The sound of this music is not heard other than from the cantor’s mouth to his ear,
•The sound is only momentary, and
•The purpose is to generate vocal song, which was never forbidden.

This matches what we wrote regarding whistling and placing one’s hand in one’s mouth.

We need to justify this; it would be disgraceful to say that the Jewish nation would stumble in a shevut (rabbinic Shabbat prohibition), all the more so when standing in prayer before the King of Kings, Gd Himself!

[Further, regarding the practice of saying words, and repeating them twice and three times, and spreading notes before the platform to sing in the style of a performance – all who have awe of heaven are pained by this, and they cannot protest, for the masses are undisciplined, and they will not listen to the words of the sages in this matter! They say that this is their enjoyment of Shabbat and Yom Tov!

In truth, perhaps there is no prohibition in this, but one who is good before Gd will flee therefrom. We have come to justify the actions of the sanctified descendants of Israel, whose eyes are sealed. Perhaps, from the fact that our Sages said one silences a cantor only for repeating the word “Shema,” we may say that this is not true for other words that they repeat twice and three times.

As to the notes they spread before the platform, we cannot present a reason to state a clear prohibition here, and so, “Let Israel practice as it will; better for them to practice in error, etc.”]

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Olive, Fig and Grape: Don't say No! (Derashah)

[For the record: I have a poppy on my coat today.]

[Note: This week's "Toronto Torah" is now available here.]

I spoke at a UJA meeting earlier this week, and presented an idea I really like; it would be a good skeleton for a derashah if I were still in the darshaning business.

Here’s a digest:

Avimelech, son of Gideon, uses the aid of the population of Shechem to murder his half-siblings and gain the throne. Yotam, the sole remaining sibling, delivers a public rebuke before disappearing into hiding. (Shoftim 9)

As JPS translates the relevant part of Yotam’s speech:
He went and stood in the top of mount Gerizim, and lifted up his voice, and cried, and said unto them: 'Hearken unto me, ye men of Shechem, that Gd may hearken unto you.
The trees went forth on a time to anoint a king over them; and they said unto the olive-tree: Reign thou over us.
But the olive-tree said unto them: Should I leave my fatness, seeing that by me they honour G-d and man, and go to hold sway over the trees?
And the trees said to the fig-tree: Come thou, and reign over us.
But the fig-tree said unto them: Should I leave my sweetness, and my good fruitage, and go to hold sway over the trees?
And the trees said unto the vine: Come thou, and reign over us.
And the vine said unto them: Should I leave my wine, which cheereth G-d and man, and go to hold sway over the trees?
Then said all the trees unto the bramble: Come thou, and reign over us.
And the bramble said unto the trees: If in truth ye anoint me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shadow...

Clearly, the main villain whom Yotam targets is his half-brother, the thorn, Avimelech. This is a completely unworthy, unproductive man, and he has accepted the throne.

It is also evident that Yotam blames the population itself for asking the thorn to lead.

But there is another set of villains: The olive, fig and grape, which decline to lead because they wish to preserve their unique attributes, which they fear they would lose if they were to take the throne. The olive is afraid it might lose its dignified position; the fig is afraid it might no longer be seen as the one that produces sweet, satisfying fruit; the grape fears that it will no longer be seen as the source of joy.

I see this all the time, in community work; it’s especially relevant for tzedakah solicitation. People are afraid that they will lose their respected positions if they run around asking for funds. People are afraid that they will be known as takers, rather than givers. People are afraid that they will spend their time talking about war and poverty and social services, and cease to be the life of the party.

But those are the people we need, for their talents! We need people who make community enterprises an honor. We need sweet people who make others feel good. And we need people who bring joy to these serious matters. These are the people who make good on the Torah’s עשר בשביל שתתעשר (“tithe so that you will become wealthy”) pledge – the people who enrich those who give, in many diverse ways that transcend finances. We need the olive, the fig and the grape.

All leaders bring talents to the table. None of us are thorns – but what sort of fruit are we?

And I closed with one more thought: The olive, fig and grape are reticent because they fear losing their dignity, they fear becoming known as takers, they fear being known for dull sobriety. But the truth, and I have seen it many times, is that those who lead end up with greater honor, end up known for the satisfaction they provide rather than the money they take, and end up increasing spiritual joy for themselves and for all they meet.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Must-See TV for synagogue rabbis, presidents, and anyone creating a community institution

This is it; this is the real deal: What if Starbucks Marketed Like the Church?

Everything from the reserved parking spots (yes, I had one)
to the locked doors
to the overt emphasis on winning souls/converts
to the harrassment-in-the-name-of-being-welcoming
to the hard-sell for new attendees
to the over-branding
to the lack of follow-through on positive initiatives
to the reliance on direct marketing
to the lack of helpful signage for new people...


The video comes from a site called, and the commentary on their site is so on-key, so on-the-mark for everything I've seen over the years, it's scary.

Example: Their observation on the way we treat volunteers-

I think we feel so grateful for Bob (the guy who volunteers to do the PowerPoint), that on his first day, we do our best to make sure we do not upset him. After all, what if he stops coming? Then what are we going to do? No, what we will do is give him the least amount of information about his duty we can (as we do not have time to really train him) and then we will put up with him not doing it perfectly since he is so faithful (of course he has no real idea what perfection to us is), until one day we get fed up and fire him from his post and crush his spirit by telling how he "never" does it right, when we never trained him what right is.

[It's not just volunteers, either; I've seen the same thing happen to paid personnel.]

Must-See TV, indeed. I'm off to email the video link to several hundred of my closest friends.

h/t Or Am I

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Of Rabbis and Poppies and Remembrance Day

I’ve noticed more than a few people walking around with felt poppies attached to their lapels over the past week, in honor of Remembrance Day (November 11). I don’t recall ever seeing this in the US, but upon investigation I have found it to be the standard way to mark Remembrance Day/Veterans Day/Armistice Day in Canada, as well as several other countries.

The question, of course: Will I wear a poppy?

I’m torn on this issue. (No, this is not another semi-serious post about being an American in Canada. This one is serious.)

Why wear it?

1. I believe patriotism to a secular government is an important value for the Jewish community, on levels both moral and pragmatic.

2. Further, as a friend has pointed out, lack of overt patriotism in our institutions may contribute to the delinquency of those few but notorious Jews who violate the laws of the land.

3. I also feel personally patriotic, as I wrote here.

4. And how could one not feel and display gratitude to people who knowingly risked their lives – and lost that gamble – for the sake of fighting Nazism and other scourges? It would seem to me that the Jewish community should produce poppies en masse, and make them mandatory garb.

Further, this is clearly not “chukot akum (the ways of the nations - the Torah prohibits us from emulating the nations around us),” for two reasons:

A. As the Sifri (Devarim 81) points out, the major concern of the prohibition against emulating non-Jewish ways is about being drawn into acting like them, and I would be hard-pressed to apply that to the poppies. (Rashi also introduces the similarly inapplicable concept of superstition in Shabbat 67a.)

B. The halachah is fairly clear that we would not apply the rules of chukot akum to an ornament that is not, in its nature and definition, an irrational חוק. See Rama Yoreh Deah 178:1: This is all prohibited only as far as conduct they practice for the sake of immorality, such as the red clothes their aristocracy wears, and practices they have inaugurated and made into rules for themselves, without reason; there is cause to be concerned for Emorite superstition or idolatry behind these practices. If they have a beneficial practice, though, such as that expert doctors wear a certain garment which signifies their expertise, then one may wear such a garment. Similarly, one may wear garments which are worn for honor or for some other reason.

And yet, and yet…

Overt patriotism is still somewhat “un-cool” in the observant community, perhaps a product of centuries of harm wreaked by a range of governments upon our people, as well as our externally and internally imposed sense of being “other.” Although I have seen many observant Jews around Toronto wearing these decorations, my sense is that they are the minority. (This may change on November 11 itself; we’ll see.)

And then there is the added factor of my role as Rabbi, even sans synagogue. For those who do see the poppies as a sign of assimilation, I would be written off as left-wing, and that would make teaching in those parts of the communities impossible. (And, let’s not deny it – I don’t particularly cherish the possibility of personal unpopularity. I imagine teenagers go through the same thing re: poppies. Peer pressure lives.)

But I do think it's the right thing to do.

So I don’t know what I will do. I'm inclined to wear it... but I'm still mulling.

[Update: In the end, I did wear a poppy on my coat.]

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Would you watch this movie?

[This week's Toronto Torah is now available here!]

Here’s the movie review:

The actors were stiff, their motions minimalist in the extreme. The movements the director prescribed to fill out the picture, to lend impact to their words, to convince the audience that they really meant what they were saying and to help the players themselves feel their roles, fell flat with a dispassionate listlessness. It was like watching a script read-through; they might as well have been sitting around a table.

I certainly wouldn’t go to a movie like that.

This theatrical image came to mind the other day, when I was thinking about the movements we associate with davening (prayer). An entire suite of motions prescribed by talmud and shulchan aruch are meant to help us enter a fruitful frame of mind for davening (ספר החינוך: אחרי הפעולות נמשכים הלבבות):

• We cover our eyes for Shma, miming concentration

• We take three steps forward to begin the amidah, as though approaching royalty; ditto for the three steps back at the end, as though departing from royalty’s presence

• We stand with our feet together for the amidah, pretending to be the single-legged angels described in Yechezkel as well as the tight-stepping kohanim who served in the beit hamikdash (Tur Orach Chaim 95)

• We bow from our knees and waist, conveying humility

• We lightly beat our chest with our fist when apologizing for our sins, showing remorse

• We lean forward and shield our eyes for tachanun, demonstrating humbled apology for our errors

Tallit and tefillin have special dramatic practices:
• Those who wear a tallit enwrap themselves entirely while reciting the berachah, and some also wear the tallit over their heads for parts of davening, displaying isolation

• We kiss our tzitzit and tefillin at various points, showing love for these mitzvot

We can build up a powerful frame of mind, drawing ourselves out of our daily rush and into humility, into seclusion with Gd, into love of mitzvot, with these simple actions.

But what good are all of these dramatic gestures, what is the use of all of this drama, if the bows are perfunctory, the steps are casual, the tachanun-lean is more of an opportunity to take a nap than to plead embarrassed guilt?

Perhaps even before we address the problem of talking to others during davening, we could address the way we talk to Gd in the davening – in words and in deeds.

I think I could accomplish much more with my prayer, if I would view it this way, as a drama, and push myself to really act it out as it was meant to be acted out. It could be wonderfully positive.

I certainly want the Great Theater Critic to enjoy it, and to come back for more.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

At last, an ally to break Ontario’s DriveTest Strike?

[Warning: There is no Torah in this post, just frustration. And another reason to wonder about Canada.]

680 News reported this morning that truckers would protest Ontario’s DriveTest strike today – I’m glad to finally have an ally.

We moved to Toronto in August, and our auto insurers want us to get Ontario driver’s licenses. It’s a reasonable enough request, but we can’t fulfill it; the Serco DES corporation responsible for licensing has been on strike for months (since August 21, four days after we moved here), and there’s no end in sight.

Part of the problem is that the government lacks any incentive to bring the strike to an end; every day the workers stay home is a day that the government saves money. At one point the employees actually offered to go back to work provisionally, and the government told them not to bother.

Who’s going to lobby for this strike to end - the minuscule number of people who have immigrated to Canada over these couple of months? Even the soon-to-be-voting teenagers have no leverage as they wait to be licensed, since most of their parents are just overjoyed that they don’t need to pay for a car and insurance for their children.

More, strikes here are just part of the culture. They're part of an economic system that favors labor unions. They're as Canadian as the air you breathe, the water you drink, the trash you compost in those tiny rolling green bins you had better lock tight or the natives of the raccoon capital of the world will have a party Wednesday night (video here).

And so it goes. The auto insurers have agreed to extend our insurance for now, but there’s no telling how long that will last. There is one ServiceOntario office in Toronto offering licensing services, but that’s a joke; I went there last week and was told it would be a four-hour wait just to get to the head of the line.

Perhaps the truckers will be the ones to bring this mess to an end. Snarl enough roads, delay enough shipments, and maybe someone will listen.

Ah, for the days of Reagan and the air traffic controllers. Or even the days of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, when the Canadian Army (yes, there is one) came in to break the police strike.

Ironically, this strike was about job security. What does “job security” mean when you sit at home without a paycheck for more than two months? And how much job security do you deserve, when 99% of the province can do just fine without you?

Monday, November 2, 2009

How many offended women can you find in this picture?

Almost twenty years ago, I spent a wonderful summer in a YU “Summer Kollel” in Charleston, South Carolina. (I loved it so much that I went back and did it again a few years later; I highly recommend that community as a travel destination, both for the warmth of the people and the beauty of the surroundings.) One night, a gentleman with whom I was learning began to pose questions about the talmudic portrayal of women. After several rounds, I commented to him that the issues he was raising – the usual, fundamental cases, like Sotah, which emerge in Tanach and Talmud – didn’t trouble me nearly as much as the more subtle sources one would find upon learning more esoteric sources.

Herewith an example I saw this morning, from the Levush (Even haEzer 1):
יתברך שמו של הקב"ה אשר חפץ בטוב בריותיו, כי יודע בשער חכמתו יתברך שאין טוב לאדם היותו לבדו, עשה לו עזר כנגדו, דכתיב [בראשית ב, יח] לא טוב היות האדם לבדו אעשה לו עזר כנגדו. ומפני שהיתה אחת מן הכוונות בבריאת האדם שיפרה וירבה, דכתיב [ישעיה מה, יח] כי לא לתוהו בראה לשבת יצרה, עשה זה העזר בזה האופן שעל ידה יוכל לפרות ולרבות, דכתיב [בראשית ב, כב] ויבן [ה' אלקים] את הצלע, עשאה כמו בנין קצר למעלה ורחב למטה לקבל הולד, ועל כן צוהו לדבק בעזר זה שעשה לו דכתיב [שם כד] ודבק באשתו, שאז תהיה לו גם היא לעזר ולהועיל בכל צרכיו, לא לבד בענין הפריה ורביה.

In loose translation:
Blessed be the Name of Gd, who wants the best for His creations, for He knows through His wisdom that it is not good for man to be alone, and so He formed a help opposite him, as it is written, ‘It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a help opposite him.’
And because one of the intentions in creating man was that he should reproduce, as it is written, ‘For He did not create it to be empty; He formed it to be settled,’ therefore He made this help in such a way that through her he could reproduce, as it is written, “‘And Gd formed the side’ – He made it like a building, narrow above and broad below in order to receive the child.”
And therefore He instructed man to cling to this help He formed for him, as it is written, ‘And he shall stick to his wife,’ and then she will be an aid and benefit for him in all of his needs, and not only in procreation.

This is just asking for trouble, isn’t it?
• The woman was created because Adam needed an assist;
• The reason for a man to marry is so that he will find assistance for his path in life;
• The main feature in a woman’s design is that she should be an incubator.

In truth, I don’t have a problem with this source; I follow the view of Ramban, and the gemara at the end of Berachot, that Man and Woman were initially created as one body (“Adam”) and separate souls, and then Gd split them into separate bodies, to improve their functionality. To my mind, the Levush is not talking about the creation of the female soul, but about the division of men and women into separate bodies . (This is a logical read; otherwise, how would one understand his formulation of the original plan for reproduction?) And, yes, that female body is generally (although not always, of course) designed for reproduction.

But reading a source like this passage from the Levush is frustrating, because it just begs to be misinterpreted. Why should the reader analyze the text in depth, when it’s easier to read the material superficially and condemn it?

It makes me wish there had been female Torah authorities writing centuries ago; I believe they would have presented the same idea, but they would have done so with greater sensitivity…

Sunday, November 1, 2009

You Make the Shiur!

[Haveil Havalim is here!]

One of the real attractions of my position with our new Beit Midrash in Toronto is the chance to work with our avrechim (fellows), helping them evolve as darshanim (orators) and maggidei shiur (teachers).

All of our avrechim are talented and learned, and all of them bring teaching experience to the table, so we are not talking about basic homiletics or lessons in how to structure a shiur. Finding ways to help them raise their game, so to speak, is a real challenge.

One innovation of which I am particularly proud is, “You Make the Shiur!” In this weekly program, I present the group with a מראה מקום, a text, and then they take some time during the week to develop a derashah or shiur involving that מראה מקום. Then we get together at the end of the week and review what each of us has done, and we make suggestions for improving each approach, or we point out ways that it could be challenged.

For example: This past week we looked at a gemara (Shabbat 89b) in which Avraham and Yaakov refuse to defend the Jews to Gd, but Yitzchak does so, first declaring that we are Gd’s own children, then minimizing the nation’s sins through a calculation of how much time we spend not-sinning, and finally arguing for mercy in the merit of his personal עקידה sacrifice.

Here’s what we did with it:

• One of us turned that source into a derashah on defending each other before Gd, using a comment by the Netziv in his introduction to Bereishit.

• Another suggested a derashah about the gap between our expectations from our parents and the way our parents act toward us.

• Another approach was to discuss the way that even chesed (generosity) has its limits, but that we may still be able to claim HaShem’s promises to us as a matter of justice.

• Another approach was to take an in-depth look at Yitzchak’s trait of Gevurah (strength), and its inner meaning, in a shiur.

• Yet another shiur avenue was to discuss Yitzchak’s association with Din (judgment), with a comment by the Maharsha and another by Rebbe Nachman miBreslov to explain how Din could be used for our redemption.

• And still another shiur approach was to fit Avraham and Yaakov’s refusal to defend us into a pattern of neviim who saw a limit to Divine forgiveness (Moshe, Yirmiyah, Eliyahu, Hosheia, Yonah, Chavakuk), because of the demands of Divine Justice. R’ Elazar b’Rabbi Shimon’s emergence from the cave fits as well. Yitzchak, though, knew what it meant to give one’s life for Divine Justice, and so he argued on our behalf.

I think you can see why I enjoy this method; it allows for a richness of individual creativity within a collaborative effort, and the result is rich and complex. It is also one of the many elements that make our Toronto Beit Midrash a unique development experience for our avrechim.

You can find the list of “You make the shiur!” sources we’ve used by clicking here; please visit, and make your own comments there.