Monday, March 29, 2010


Got rid of the chamez, sifted and checked the quinoa, washed and checked and washed and checked the marror-lettuce. The kids are lunching on gefilte fish, and cutting the pineapple karpas is someone else’s responsibility.

My Yom Tov reading is all prepared, the news websites are still full of Everyone Hates Bibi, the blogs are full of Pesach – except for RWAC, whose blog seems to have disappeared in the past couple of weeks.

My Yom ha’Atzmaut “To Go” article (“Mother and Motherland”) is complete and submitted, my Shavuos “To Go” article (“Avraham’s Holiday”) needs a closer. My next medical halachah shiur (“Returning home from the hospital on Shabbos”) is in progress, as is my next Amos shiur. But nothing is happening on those fronts today.

There’s a moment here to breathe, to stop and think, before the likely-futile attempt to nap the kids.

A moment to think about a weird dream I had last night:
It was right before Yom Tov and I was returning home (Allentown) from somewhere, and I went straight to the hospital to visit a certain congregant because I had a premonition that something was wrong with him and he must be in the hospital. Sure enough, he was there in the hospital, and they were about to operate on him. I don’t remember the rest of the dream, but the eerie part is that this congregant passed away on the last day of Pesach last year. I don’t think that was on my mind, but who ever really knows what’s on his mind?

And a moment to hope for real cheirut [liberation] tonight, cheirut from the things that drag me down, cheirut that I can’t create on my own, but that can come to me from outside myself.

It sounds jarring, to say that cheirut must come from beyond ourselves, that we cannot liberate ourselves. This is not the zeitgeist, certainly. But I believe it is so.

It's like Talmud Torah [Torah study]. Much of Torah study isn’t from within, it’s Revelation from outside; we learn Torah in order to gain new information and insight. I can deduce and analyze and reason, but I need raw materials from beyond myself. מצוות שכליות [rational mitzvot] are all well and good, but תורה צוה לנו משה, HaShem had Moshe give us the Torah to provide us with מצוות שמעיות, the mitzvot of Revelation, because we need those to gain a full understanding.

And it's like the Yetzer HaRa, our set of challenges and temptations. The world says there is no test you cannot pass, but I disagree. There are tests and challenges and temptations I cannot survive on my own. There are temptations in life which are not about passing or failing, but about remembering to daven to HaShem for help, and then HaShem will help us pass. דום לה' והתחולל לו.

I believe Cheirut is designed with the same model. I can struggle and work and improve, but I also need building blocks from beyond. This is a liberation which comes from Divine aid, without which I remain a slave, but with which I can achieve greatness. And Gd is willing to provide that aid. Liberation did not come to the Jews in Egypt until ויזעקו, they cried out for it, and ויאמן העם, the nation believed.

We are מאמינים בני מאמינים, זועקים בני זועקים. Our ancestors cried out and we cry out. Our ancestors believed and we believe. And our ancestors achieved Yerushalayim, and we will as well.

חג כשר ושמח! May all of us experience our liberation tonight.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

I need to suffer for my art

[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here]

I wrote a while back about having anxiety nightmares related to krias hatorah [Torah reading] and other public ‘performance’ situations. Those dreams often involve me suddenly “realizing” that it’s the first night of Pesach and I haven’t prepared any shiurim, or that it’s Succos and my succah isn’t yet complete, or that it’s Yom Kippur night and I’m drinking a bottle of Boost Plus.

But what I’m experiencing right now isn’t a dream. It’s the night before Pesach, I am fully awake, [or, I think I am, anyway… hard to tell after all of that driving] and I’m feeling very unprepared.

I have prepared, of course. I’ve read through the haggadah many times over; I’ve delivered a month of shiurim on the haggadah and the halachos of Pesach, you can hear them and read them on or We [read: The Rebbetzin] cleaned our house of real chametz and sold the pseudo-chametz that remains. We’re currently parked an hour or so from our Yom Tov destination.

But I don’t feel ready, at all.

Part of it is that when the rest of the world was doing bedikas chametz tonight, we were exercising the kids by walking them around the New Roc City entertainment area next to our hotel, watching teenagers play pool and littler ones ride a Merry Go Round.

Part of it is that when the rest of the world was cooking for Pesach, we were eating take-out from Eden Wok.

Part of it is the rootlessness of not being home, with my chevra and my sefarim and my life.

Part of it is that my haggadah classes this year focussed on spiritual elevation through the seder experience, and it’s hard to feel purified when I'm sitting in a hotel on the night before Pesach, not preparing eight days of derashos and shiurim.

And the biggest part is simply that my “If I’m not in pain it’s not Pesach” nerves, my version of the hausfraus’ clean-under-the-refrigerator reflexes, are kicking in. Pesach just didn’t hurt enough this year.

How do people do it, when they go to Pesach hotels?

My inner masochist is unsatisfied.

I’m just not ready for Zman Cheiruseinu, to feel liberated. I need to suffer more first.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Of Rabbi Blogs and Rebbetzin Blogs

Yesterday I spoke to several shul rabbis who were in varying stages of preparation for Shabbos haGadol and Pesach. All of them exuded stress in waves; I could feel sympathy tension in my back and neck, and a powerful, drummed-in Nisan reflex to check my To Do list and wonder what I was missing.

Among the things I did every Pesach for the last dozen years, and I did not do over the past two weeks:

• Answer questions about urns and coffeemakers and Lactaid and eggs and heirloom china and canola oil and peanut oil. (On the other hand, I did answer a lot of questions about quinoa - repeat after me: Ask. Your. Rabbi.)

• Kasher people’s kitchens

• Wonder when I was going to kasher our own kitchen

• Canvas supermarkets to determine what kosher for pesach products were available

• Pursue people to make sure they contracted with me to sell their chametz

Drive to New York to pick up Shatzer Matzah for the shul

• Arrange the communal chametz-burning and men’s mikvah times

• Write derashos for the first days of Yom Tov, for Shabbos Chol haMoed, for the last days of Yom Tov

• Check shul lockers for random chametz

Take care of other random shul pre-Pesach chores

• Arrange sedarim and yom tov meals for college students

To be honest: Yes, I miss a lot of it, and I suspect I will return to it one day.

But! That didn’t stop me from turning my eyes heavenward yesterday and saying with a full heart, “Baruch… SheLo Asani Rabbi!” [Thank You, Gd, for not making me a Rabbi.]

One thing I did do in the past week was canvas the blogs of rabbis and rebbetzins of various flavors, to see what they were saying as Pesach approached. Along the way, I picked up on a few differences between Rabbi Blogs and Rebbetzin Blogs.

Most noticeably, Rabbis tend to blog as an extension of their rabbinate and Rebbetzins tend to blog in spite of their rebbetzinate. In other words: Rabbis tend to write like rabbis, even when writing about personal matters; Rebbetzins tend to write like bloggers, even when writing about Torah matters.

There are a whole host of reasons for that difference, of course. Some of it is gender; the women rabbi blogs tend to read far more human than the male rabbi blogs. I think that more of it, though, is that Rebbetzins are human beings rather than clergy.

A few Rebbetzin blogs as Exhibit A:
Redefining Rebbetzin
Rebbetzin Man in Japan
The Rebbetzin Rocks

And a few Rabbi blogs as Exhibit B:
NY’s Funniest Rabbi
Velveteen Rabbi
Or am I?

The Rebbetzins sound like people. The Rabbis sound like, well, rabbis. As I suppose I do, for that matter.

But enough of this. I may not have Pesach to prepare, but I do have post-Pesach shiurim to work on… Chag kasher v’sameach, and may we merit to bring the korban pesach in a unified Yerushalayim!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

My Incredible Shrinking Seder

[Toronto Torah for Parshat Tzav / HaGadol is here]

Like most kids who went to day school, my siblings and I grew up learning brief divrei torah to report at the Seder.

As we got older, those divrei torah morphed into our own questions and answers, and more fleshed-out ideas we had researched. And Maggid grew.

So it was that, through our collective family efforts, the Maggid part of the Seder grew into a two-to-three-hour saga, and we rushed through everything else in order to make more time for this Seder centerpiece.

The idea of extending Maggid with discussion made sense; after all, doesn't the Haggadah report that even the most wise sages must discuss Yetziat Mitzrayim? Do we not say, "One who increases" his discussion is praiseworthy? And don't we emphasize the story of Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon discussing Yetziat Mitzrayim all night in Bnei Brak?

Then, when I got married, began to host my own seder and had children, I decided to keep the discussions but shift them to Shulchan Orech, the meal portion of the seder. This way our kids could see more of the seder - a talmudic requirement, I might add - and people would stay interested even if they lacked the sophistication for the discussions.

But along the way I wondered: Really, what were they discussing in Bnei Brak all night? It wasn't the question of why Ha Lachma Anya is in Aramaic, or why Rabbi Eliezer wasn't with his family, or which lines really don't fit in Dayyenu. Theoretically, it could have been a debate of the essence of the mitzvah of sippur yetziat mitzrayim [re-telling the exodus], and whether our Koreich sandwich means we agree with Hillel on sandwiching or not - but all night, and every year? Couldn't they just agree to disagree? And would that same annual debate really absorb them to such an extent that they would risk missing Shema? Entirely possible, yes... but I felt I was missing something.

This year, when I began to prepare Pesach shiurim, I pulled my עולת ראיה Haggadah of Rav Kook from the shelf. I had made notes on a few points in it over the years, but I had never learned in through, beginning to end. I have several Haggadot like that, but I decided that this year I would use Rav Kook's thought. And it changed my Seder forever, for two reasons.

1. As I've mentioned elsewhere, Rav Kook sees the food parts of the seder as the essence, and the purpose of Maggid is to fill in the story of how our suffering and degradation made our redemption possible. [Not only how suffering preceded redemption, but how it enabled redemption; a major kabbalistic theme.] The emphasis is on the actions of Kiddush, washing, dipping, eating, and how those elevate our appreciation for the nation we have become, and the nation we have yet to become.

2. Rav Kook understands the height of the seder not as an intellectual appreciation for the texts describing geulah [redemption], but as a spiritual elevation that results from experiencing geulah. He sees us coming closer to HaShem:
generating kedushah,
washing ourselves of our individual impurities,
dipping food/necessity into dip/pleasure,
breaking the matzah to symbolize material needs [לחם עוני] and spiritual pleasure [eating afikoman על השובע],
cleansing our national state,
eating the simple bread associated with leaving Egypt as a new nation without any impurities,
seeing how the bitterness brought us to redemption,
making a sandwich to symbolize the necessity for servility as well as freedom,
eating a meal of pleasure at this spiritual height,
thanking Gd for our food at this new height,
using our newly exalted state to praise Gd with הלל,
and finding ourselves accepted to Gd, נרצה.

In this view, the seder is not about the textual analysis, it's about spiritual growth. Extended textual analysis is a tool, and if it causes that growth, wonderful - but if text causes us to lose sight of the bigger picture, then it's time to shrink the Maggid. Not necessarily into the mold of a sixty-second seder, but into an experience that truly brings us to experience Redemption and grow to a new height.

Chassidic, I know. I'm okay with that.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How to lie with statistics

A triviality, for today....

In my days at YU, I took a Sociology class for which we read a book called How to Lie with Statistics. The book was a fun read, but it had nothing on a column I saw yesterday, Communicating in 2010: Why leaders cannot ignore the impact of social media, which used (without attribution!) statistics from Socialnomics.

The article consists largely of a set of statistics selected to show that social media outlets in the age of the Internet (a) have grown quickly and (b) now reach a lot of people. Neither is a particularly novel or controversial point... which, perhaps, is what drove the author to use inappropriate comparisons and conclusions in order to say something that would grab people's attention. It's like a rabbi in a speech, extending himself to greater and more outlandish hyperbole in an attempt to grab people's attention.

Here are examples:

* It took radio 38 years to reach 50 million users, television 13 years, the Internet four years, and the iPod three years. In just a nine month period, Facebook added 100 million users, and downloads of iPhone applications reached one billion.

- The Facebook total is cumulative, including people who joined and never used it, or who joined and left and re-joined with another name. The radio and television users are simultaneous - 38 years after radio's inception, 50 million people were listening;

- iPhone applications are not one-per-person, and therefore they don't reflect an accurate means of comparison with the other items.

* Print newspaper circulation is down 7 million over the last 25 years. But in the last five years, unique readers of online newspapers have increased 30 million.

- Print circulation is down 7 million from a very, very large number. (Anyone know it?) Online newspapers are up from 0.

* Collectively, ABC, NBC, and CBS get 10 million unique visitors every month, and these businesses have been around for a combined 200 years. YouTube, Facebook, and MySpace get 250 million unique visitors each month, and they’ve only been around for the last six years.

- The unique visitors to networks are people who watch lots of television, at least 30-minutes worth. The unique visitors to MySpace include people who look at just one page.

- 'Unique visitors' to networks are gauged by household, and so 10 million may actually be 40 million or more. 'Unique visitors' to Internet sites are gauged by individual.

- I am not at all clear on why we are combining the network ages at all, but if we are then we should also combine the ages of Youtube, etc. for consistency.

* In 2008, John McCain raised $11 million for his U.S. presidential bid through traditional campaign fundraisers. Barack Obama leveraged online social networks to raise $55 million.

- Note: This was not on the Socialnomics site; don't know where she got this one.

-Why are we comparing apples (McCain and traditional fundraisers) to oranges (Obama and online fundraising)? Probably because Obama raised some $650 million dollars overall, which makes $55 million via social media look a little lame.

- Also unclear: McCain raised more than $30 million for his campaign - so did 2/3 of his fundraising come from online social networks? I'm confused.

* More than 1.5 million pieces of content are shared on Facebook daily.

- Define "content"!

* 80 per cent of companies are using LinkedIn as a recruitment tool.

- Going back to the data source shows they are actually using the site as a way to do research on prospective hires, once they have located the candidates in more traditional ways.

And so on.

Who cares? I do; I like statistics, but I also like honest presentations. Seems I have a תרתי דסתרי problem here. [תרתי דסתרי doesn't really translate into English; best I can do is "inherent contradiction.]

Monday, March 22, 2010

Burying a Suicide Victim in a Jewish Cemetery

One of those questions I hear every so often: Do we bury someone in a Jewish cemetery if he commits suicide?

I was reminded of the question by this article:
When college students take their lives, as apparently happened recently at Cornell University, the instinctual reaction, to mourn publicly and officially, may be the wrong thing to do, psychologists say.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention recommends that schools have a "muted response" to suicide, said Ann Haas, director of suicide prevention projects. That's because students already vulnerable to suicide may be attracted to the idea of getting recognition or gratification in death.
"For those students who seem to really be at risk, there's something about those kinds of memorials that really can trigger additional suicide," she said…
Researchers have found that suicide can, in effect, be contagious, creating clusters of people taking their own lives in close proximity within a few months. The people involved may not have had any direct contact, but publicity of the suicide, including through large vigils and assemblies, may result in more suicidal behavior, said Madelyn Gould, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center.
"We do feel that some memorials need to take place, but it might be worth trying to develop some suicide prevention activity to honor that person," she said.

Along similar lines, I remember hearing that newspapers have a policy of not explicitly recording ‘suicide’ as a cause of death in their Obituary columns, lest that inspire imitators. [See Student Newspaper Guidelines here.]

These policies confirm the longstanding but controversial Jewish practice of avoiding public honors for people who commit suicide (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avel 1:11):

המאבד עצמו לדעת אין מתעסקין עמו לכל דבר ואין מתאבלין עליו ואין מספידין אותו, אבל עומדין עליו בשורה ואומרין עליו ברכת אבלים וכל דבר שהוא כבוד לחיים
If a person knowingly destroys himself, we do not involve ourselves with him for anything. We do not mourn for him, we do not eulogize him, but we do form a condolence line and recite the blessing for mourners and perform all other practices which honor the living.

This is a tough practice, and one that I’ve never actually seen implemented; as the Rambam himself wrote there, and as the Aruch haShulchan noted (Yoreh Deah 345:5) seven centuries later, we depend on any possible explanation to conclude that this was not an intentional suicide.

But why have the practice in the first place? Because of the fear outlined by Ann Haas and Madelyn Gould; we don’t want to encourage others to do likewise for the sake of honor.

To return to the main question, this is why people think that we do not bury a suicide victim in a Jewish cemetery. However, neither the Rambam nor the Shulchan Aruch says anything about excluding that person from a Jewish cemetery. Indeed, the Shach to Yoreh Deah 345:1 seems to say that we do bury the person in a Jewish cemetery.

I did know of one case, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in which a woman was alleged to have committed suicide, and she was buried outside of the cemetery gates. Some years later, though, they expanded the cemetery – and so her grave ended up in with those of everyone else.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Shh! The Rabbi's Coming!

First: A reader has started a new website, Mi Yodeya, posting questions and answers about Judaism on a Wiki-style site. The site just opened for business last week, and is particularly interesting for the types of questions it has gathered - Did Rav Moshe Feinstein pronounce his last name “Feinstain” or “Feinsteen”? and Kosher accommodations in out-of-the-way US places are two recent examples.


Almost two years ago (I actually mentioned it in my post here), my Rebbetzin recommended Marilynne Robinson's Gilead to me as a book with both great writing and a compelling story. I never got past the opening chapters; Death is a major theme in the book, and I shy away from that topic when I can. But yesterday I finished my current reading and decided to pick it up again.

I'm glad I did; the words of the book's narrator, an aging preacher, resonate with my own experience. In particular, an incident on pages 5-6 grabs me, both for its writing and for its authenticity:

The preacher talks about walking past two young men and seeing them laughing at some joke. As he nears, they stop laughing. He says to himself, I felt like telling them, I appreciate a joke as much as anybody. There have been many occasions in my life when I have wanted to say that. But it's not a thing people are willing to accept. They want you to be a little bit apart.

Very true - but even more true is the piece on the next page:

That's the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things. There's a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn't really expect to find it, either.

This has certainly been my experience; the same people who won't make an inappropriate joke within my earshot will tell me about experiences that reflect on them in a far worse light, or will divulge inner feelings and doubts and struggles, personal pain and loss, that are far closer to the reality of their souls than some email humor.

It is, as Robinson writes, a remarkable thing. Here's my own take:

Telling a 'dirty' joke is lighthearted fun, and is not a serious source of temptation; it simply says I am corrupt. In divulging personal weakness, though, I can portray myself as struggling, working to perfect myself or to overcome a challenge.

There is no shame in telling the rabbi I am having trouble dealing with an addiction, if the message is that I am trying to deal with it.

Shades of מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח at the Pesach Seder; we don't mind portraying ourselves as fallen heroes, so long as we can add that we are picking ourselves up and aiming for glory.

Israel as a Person

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

Up late working on an article, veering into purple prose as I usually do at this hour. Still, it's not all that bad, I think.

The core idea is that Israel, beyond its existence as venue or as mitzvah-tool, is a living entity, a being, a person. I see pieces of this in Rav Alkalai, Rav Kook and Rav Yissachar Techtel, and I believe it traces back through Tanach and Midrash. The challenge is to put this into an article that will track the intellectual history of the idea while remaining faithful to its poetic spirit - in 2000 or so words.

Here's my first stab at the opening paragraphs:

ותאמר ציון עזבני ה' וה' שכחני
And Zion said: G-d has abandoned me, and Gd has forgotten me.

לא יאמר לך עוד עזובה ולארצך לא יאמר עוד שממה כי לך יקרא חפצי בה
You shall no longer be called ‘Abandoned,’ and your land will no longer be called ‘Desolate,’ for you will be called ‘My delight is in her.’

The Jew has known many reasons for his millenia-old love affair with the land of Israel; thrice-daily recitations of “ותחזינה עינינו, Let our eyes see when You return mercifully to Zion,” have been fueled by motivations both religious and secular. The focus of the biblical universe, the cradle of our nation, the throne of King David’s theocentric empire, the host of our most palpable connection to the world of the spirit, the coordinates at which our mitzvot are most practical and practiceable, the place where the plangent Divine declaration, “פה אשב כי אויתיה, Here I will dwell, for I have desired her, ” still echoes – Eretz Yisrael has been all of these, and more, for the genetic and spiritual heirs of Avraham and Sarah.

In the vision of the leading rabbis of Religious Zionism, though, the Land of Israel has held a more intimate role. Earth and stone and river and sea have been anthropomorphized as flesh and blood, and the space formerly known as Canaan has been identified as a living being, bride to G-d and to the Jewish people by turns.

This identity of Israel as person is part of a broader animation of HaShem’s creation, but as a specific case it adds depth of meaning to our millenia-old love affair, to our exile and to our return.

...stay tuned for more...

Thursday, March 18, 2010

How to lynch your rabbi

Warning: Bad mood ahead.

The following outrageous Q and A exchange on Kipa illustrates the danger of trusting an “Ask the Rabbi” website, and of asking a schoolteacher (you can see the writer's bio here; I don't want to mention his name) for advice about shul politics:

The Question:
My community’s rabbi has been here for many years. I have no personal connection with him, but he is, in sum, a pleasant person. The problem is that he does not really guide the community. He doesn’t really connect with community members, beyond a small kernel of “chasidim.” Almost no one goes to his classes, and in general he does not create any meaningful path for the community. They say he was more energetic in the beginning of his career.

I assume there are things I do not see, and that he maintains some connections with people in private, but my impression – and that of others – is as I have described.

How does one turn to a rabbi and ask him to do more, without damaging his honor? And in an extreme case, may one try to remove a rabbi from his position in order to appoint a rabbi who is more appropriate?

Note: The questioner is already polling other people about her discomfort.

Note: The questioner has not approached the rabbi directly, given her penultimate question.

In other words: "Basically, I'd like to know: What should I do if I and seventy of my closest and dearest friends, who I just happen to know by osmosis agree with me since I don't gossip at all, think the rabbi is a washed-out has-been failure?"

The answer includes the following paragraph:
At the start of any practical path, you must ascertain clearly that your assessment is that of most of the community, and that the rabbi really is not creating spiritual and personal progress among the community members.

Therefore, in practice, I recommend that you check – with great discretion – a representative sample of 20-30 percent of the community members, not in a clear way but in a roundabout way, in the course of conversation about some other matter. Check many cases: Do they have a relationship with the rabbi, do they value his accomplishments in the community, do they go to other rabbis with personal connections.

Many rabbis are far from perfect, and some should be replaced - but DUDE! What are you doing?!

No mention of approaching the rabbi directly, just, “Sure, ma’am, just go poll your friends about what they think of the rabbi. Ask them what they think of him. Twenty or thirty percent of the community – one out of every three or four. See if they have a connection with the rabbi. But do it discreetly.”

Discreetly? Have you never dealt with human beings??

Here are some good opening lines for that discreet conversation:

So... talk to the rabbi lately? No? Why not?

Hey, remember when you went in for surgery last year? Who did you go to for advice? Oh, not the rabbi?

That class the rabbi gave - what did you think of it? Not for repetition, of course; please ignore my pen and paper.

What do you think of the rabbi's suits? His conversational abilities? The food at his Shabbos table - or have you never been invited there, like 12.7% of the people I have randomly sampled in a discreet survey I'm pretending not to be taking?

How about we poll the parents of your high school students, "Not to start any trouble, but: Are you satisfied with your children's teacher?"

You could have titled this column, “Advice on Creating a Lynch Mob,” or, "How to make your rabbi's life a living gehennom."

I'm glad that in the responses, a sensible reader wrote in:
Why not try to speak to the rabbi before anything else? Why isn’t the first step to explain the situation and the reactions – personal or communal – and hear his side, and then, if the situation does not improve, turn to another rabbi to speak with him, or something like that? Why is the immediate reaction to jump to gatherings and meetings, at which it will be impossible to avoid lashon hara and degradation of a Torah scholar?

To which the author responds:
Certainly, certainly, the first and most fundamental step, from the Torah and from basic ethics, is this; this is also likely to be the most effective approach. My response is given that the questioner had already tried this and not received a response. Yasher koach.

Yasher koach indeed. What you should do, Rabbi Schoolteacher, is delete your entire answer, beginning to end, and just insert your reader’s suggestion.

For a more complete set of instructions:
1. Talk to the rabbi directly;
2. If that does not yield an explanation or corrective action, talk to the president.
3. It is then the president's job to evaluate the concern and take it to the board for discussion and action, or not.

The last one to discreetly poll the people was Korach, you know.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Canada says: Taxes and severance packages all around!

[This month's Kosher Cooking Carnival is here]

Another sign that Canada is not “United States North”:

On July 1, 2010, Ontario is going to move to a “Harmonized Sales Tax.” The plan is to merge and expand an existing 5% federal GST tax and an 8% provincial PST, to charge people a 13% HST on almost all products and services, including many of those which had been exempt from GST or PST in the past.

This broader and more expensive tax provides enough to complain about, but it’s not my point today. Rather, my point is this: The tax collectors who previously worked for the province will now work for the federal government, and therefore some 98% of the 1,250 affected workers will receive six-month severance packages for ‘losing’ their provincial jobs.

Challenged on this, the government simply said, “Our word is our word; their contracts require this severance package.”

This is so Canada.

I’m not referring to the policy of honoring the union contract; the American government would do that as well. But the idea that the workers can actually come out ahead is very Canadian. If this were the US, the government would hand the workers the severance package, fire them, and hire new, untrained workers.

This US policy of firing the old staff and hiring new people would serve several purposes:
1. It would satisfy the union contract;
2. It would take more than a thousand people off the employment rolls;
3. It would lower the payroll since the new workers would not have seniority, and
4. It would guarantee that anyone who needed to interact with the tax collectors would be faced with someone who was new to the job and didn’t know what he was talking about.

Can’t understand why they do things so differently up north.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

This is a shul, Rabbi!

One of my strongest shul-related childhood memories is of crossing a leg over my lap during the rabbi's speech, and my father telling me that this relaxed position was inappropriate for shul. [Update: My father has explained to me that he learned this lesson from the great Rabbi Leo Jung, z"l.]

This mental photograph has been very helpful to me over the years.

A dozen years in the rabbinate means that for a dozen years I entered and exited the shul [meaning the sanctuary, the actual room in which we daven] several times each day, and used that space for any number of non-davening purposes from rolling sifrei torah to preparing the room for davening to I don’t remember what. In the years before that I spent more than ten hours each day in beis medrash, as I do now in my new kollel life.

Bottom line: I have lived in “sacred spaces” more than I have lived anywhere else, and as a result I am perpetually on the verge of losing sensitivity to the kedushah [sanctity] of a shul and of a place dedicated to learning Torah.

One danger in this numbing is halachic: I’ll see nothing wrong with walking in there to shoot the breeze with someone, an activity which is prohibited. I’ve seen it happen; I’ve seen shul rabbis, holy individuals whose achievements dwarf my own, people I could not ever judge [although I suppose I do…], use shul sanctuary space for communal meetings, personal conversation and telling jokes.

In truth, some of those activities may be halachically justified by the fact that shul sanctuaries are often designed to be multi-purpose rooms. But the risk of desensitization is about more than the halachic Yea or Nay; there is also the greater effect on the way we experience shul activities – davening and learning Torah.

On this deeper level, desensitization to the shul space is part of a process of taking Gd out of davening and out of learning Torah. Davening and learning, without an awareness of Gd, become tasks, checklist activities, or even self-centered activities, rather than cornerstones of a profound relationship.

So I try to be careful to say Mah Tovu every time I walk into the shul; to relate to my children in a manner that also honors the space; to dress properly; to keep my speech limited to topics that are appropriate for the space.

And, of course, not to cross a leg over my lap.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Is Quinoa Kosher for Passover?

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

I'm delivering a shiur on Wednesday evening on the status of Quinoa on Pesach. I don't intend to provide a psak; as is my rule here in Toronto, I leave that to the shul rabbis. We will only explore the relevant halachic questions:

1. How do we define the five 'grains' which Pesachim 35a defines as qualified for matzah, and as potential chametz? Is there any possibility that quinoa is one of them?
Essentially: We'll note the classic means of identifying the 'grains': Tradition. Since quinoa was not available in the Middle East in the days of the gemara, and since its botany makes it clear that quinoa is not a cereal, or even a grass, we see that including quinoa among the 'grains' is most unlikely.
Along the way, we'll detour to discuss whether oat matzah is actually matzah, and whether the berachah on oatmeal should be בורא מיני מזונות or not.)

2. What is included in the custom of refraining from eating Kitniyot, and should that custom be expanded to include quinoa?
Essentially: We'll note the difference between the expansion of Kitniyot to include corn, and the general (although not universal) exclusion of potato from Kitniyot. We'll provide different explanations for this apparent discrepancy, including the Pri Megadim's contention that we do not expand the customs of Kitniyot, and Rav Moshe Feinstein's explanation of the difference between Gezeirah (decree) and Minhag (custom), and its application to quinoa. [Update 3/17: We'll also note the COR's response to Rav Moshe Feinstein's ruling, now that I have it.]

3. The OU and others note that quinoa might be processed in a plant that also processes grains. How can we check quinoa?
We will look at samples of each of the five raw grains, along with quinoa, to learn to identify them properly.

Below is the source sheet I have prepared; the audio will be on-line afterward, Gd-willing.

Is Quinoa Kosher for Pesach?

Define Chametz: Is Quinoa one of the species that can become Chametz?
1. Mishnah, Pesachim 2:5
אלו דברים שאדם יוצא בהן ידי חובתו בפסח בחיטים בשעורים בכוסמין ובשיפון ובשבולת שועל

2. Talmud, Pesachim 35a
הני - אין, אורז ודוחן - לא. מנהני מילי? אמר רבי שמעון בן לקיש, וכן תנא דבי רבי ישמעאל, וכן תנא דבי רבי אליעזר בן יעקב: אמר קרא +דברים טז+ לא תאכל עליו חמץ שבעת ימים תאכל עליו מצות. דברים הבאים לידי חימוץ - אדם יוצא בהן ידי חובתו במצה, יצאו אלו שאין באין לידי חימוץ אלא לידי סירחון. מתניתין דלא כרבי יוחנן בן נורי, דאמר: אורז מין דגן הוא, וחייבין על חימוצו כרת. דתניא: רבי יוחנן בן נורי אוסר באורז ודוחן, מפני שקרוב להחמיץ.
With these, but not with rice or millet. How do we know this?
R’ Shimon ben Lakish said, and so was taught in the yeshiva of R’ Yishmael and the yeshiva of R’ Eliezer ben Yaakov – that the Torah says, ‘You shall not eat chametz upon it; for seven days you shall eat matzah upon it.’ One can fulfill matzah with items that can ferment, and that excludes these items [rice and millet] which do not ferment, but instead rot.
Our mishnah disagrees with R’ Yochanan ben Nuri, who said that rice was a type of grain, and one would be liable for kareit for fermented rice, as we have learned, “R’ Yochanan ben Nuri prohibits rice and millet, because they are close to fermenting.”

3. The five, as they are normally rendered
חטה = Wheat / שעורה = Barley / שיפון = Rye / כוסמין = Spelt / שיבולת שועל = Oat

4. Rashi to Pesachim 35a
שיבולת שועל - אביינ"א, שיבולת שלה עשוי כזנב שועל.
Shibolet Shual: Avena; its stalk is like the tail of a fox.

5. Mishnah, Kilayim 1:1
השעורים ושבולת שועל הכוסמין והשיפון הפול והספיר הפורקדן והטופח ופול הלבן והשעועים אינם כלאים זה בזה:
Se’orim and shibolet shual, kusmin and shifon, pol and sapir… are not kilayim to each other.

6. Talmud Yerushalmi, Challah 1:1
שורה זו שיבולת שועל ולמה נקרא שמה שורה שהיא עשויה כשורה
Shurah is shibolet shual. Why is it called shurah? Because it is formed like a shurah.

7. R’ Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz, Igrot Chazon Ish II #23
והדבר ידוע בעניני הלכה שלא לסמוך הרבה על מציאות חדשות רק על ספרי פוסקים מדור דור בלי הפסק.
It is known, in halachic matters, not to depend greatly upon new finds, only on the books of authorities which have been passed through the generations without interruption.

8. R’ Moshe Shternbuch, Teshuvot v’Hanhagot I 302
ובקובץ שערי ציון (אלול תשמ"ח) הוכיח שהקווקער שלנו אינו השבולת שועל שהרי הקווקער אינו מחמיץ כלל, וטועים העולם שקווקער הוא מחמשת מינים, ואם כן לדידיה אין יוצאין בזה ידי חובת מצה, וצריך לחפש מין אחר שלא יזיק.
And in the Kovetz Shaarei Tzion (Elul 5748) he demonstrated that our quaker is not the shibolet shual, for quaker does not become chametz at all, and the world errs in considering it one of the five species. If so, according to him, one could not fulfill the obligation for matzah with this, and one would need to seek out a different species that did not cause harm.

Define Kitniyot: Might Quinoa be prohibited as Kitniyot?
9. Talmud, Pesachim 114b
מאי שני תבשילין? אמר רב הונא: סילקא וארוזא. רבא הוה מיהדר אסילקא וארוזא, הואיל ונפיק מפומיה דרב הונא. אמר רב אשי: שמע מינה דרב הונא: לית דחייש להא דרבי יוחנן בן נורי.
What two foods? Rav Huna said: Beets and rice. Rava sought out beets and rice because of Rav Huna’s recommendation. Rav Ashi said: We see from Rav Huna’s words that we are not concerned for R’ Yochanan ben Nuri’s position.

10. Hagahot Rabbeinu Peretz to Sefer Mitzvot Katan #222, note 12
ועל הקטניות כגון פויי"ש ופול"י ורי"ש ועדשים וכיוצא בהם רבותינו נוהגים בהם איסור שלא לאוכלם בפסח כלל... וגדולים נוהגים בהם היתר, ומורי רבינו יחיאל היה נוהג לאכול בפסח פול הלבן שקורין פוויי"ש וגם היה אומר כן בשם גדולים, ומביא ראיה דאפילו באורז דחשיב ליה רבי יוחנן בן נורי מין דגן לגבי חימוץ, קאמר תלמודא לית דחש לה להא דרבי יוחנן מיהו קשה הדבר מאד להתיר דבר שנוהגין בו העולם איסור מימי חכמים הקדמונים דמסתמא לא נהגו בו איסור מחמת חימוץ עצמו דלא טעו בדבר שהתינוקות של בית רבן שלמדו ההלכה יודעין דאיכא בהדיא בפסחים דאין בא לידי חימוץ כ"א מה' המינין, ולכך נראה לקיים המנהג ולאסור כל קטנית בפסח, ולא מחמת חימוץ עצמו כי טעות הוא לומר כן אלא מטעם גזירה הוא דכיון דקטנית מעשה קדרה הוא, ודגן נמי מעשה קדרה הוא כדייסא אי הוי שרינן קטנית אולי אתי לאיחלופי ולהתיר דייסא, כיון דאידי ואידי מעשה קדרה הוא, וגם מידי דמידגן הוא כמו חמשת המינים, כדאיתא בפרק השוכר את הפועלים דקרי לקטנית מידי דמידגן וגם יש מקומות שרגילים לעשות מהם פת כמו מחמשת המינים ולכך אתי לאיחלופי לאותן שאינן בני תורה
Regarding kitniyot, like piyes, pole and reish and lentils and similar foods, our masters treat them as prohibited and do not eat them on Pesach at all… Great authorities treat them as permitted, and my mentor Rabbeinu Yechiel ate white beans on Pesach and cited this from great authorities, and proved it from the fact that regarding rice, which R’ Yochanan ben Nuri considered a type of grain as far as fermentation, the gemara said, “We are not concerned for R’ Yochanan ben Nuri’s position.’
Still, it is very difficult to permit something which the world has considered prohibited since the days of early sages. It may be assumed that they did not treat it as prohibited because of fermentation itself, for they did not err in something which schoolchildren who have learned halachah know! It is explicit in Pesachim that only the five types ferment! Therefore, it appears that we should uphold the minhag and prohibit all kitnit on Pesach, not because of fermentation as that would be a mistaken explanation, but as a decree.
Since kitnit is prepared in a pot like grain is, as in porridge, if we would permit kitnit then it might be confused [with grain] and people might permit porridge, as both are made in a pot.
Further, it is harvested like grain, like the five types, as is found in the seventh chapter of Bava Metzia that kitnit is called ‘that which is harvested like grain.’ [This could mean Bava Metzia 87a, but it is far more likely that he is referring to Nedarim 55a.]
Further, there are places where people normally made bread from them as they do from the five types, so that people who are not learned might confuse them.

11. Tur, Orach Chaim 453
ויש אוסרין לאכול אורז וכל מיני קטניות בתבשיל לפי שמיני חטין מתערבין בהן וחומרא יתירא היא זו ולא נהגו כן
Some prohibit eating rice and types of kitniyot in cooked foods, because wheat grains are mixed in. This is an excessive stringency, and people are not accustomed to do this.

12. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Kilayim 1:8
הזרעונין נחלקין לשלשה חלקים, האחד מהם הוא הנקרא תבואה והיא חמשה מינין החטים והכוסמין והשעורין ושבולת שועל והשיפון, והשני מהן הוא הנקרא קטנית, והן כל זרעים הנאכל לאדם חוץ מן התבואה, כגון הפול והאפונים והעדשים והדוחן והאורז והשומשמין והפרגין והספיר וכיוצא בהן, והשלישי מהן הוא הנקרא זרעוני גינה, והן שאר זרעונין שאינן ראויין למאכל אדם, והפרי של אותו הזרע מאכל אדם
Seeds are divided into three categories:
(1) Tevuah – The five types…
(2) Kitnit – Seeds which people eat, aside from grain, like beans and peas and lentils and millet and rice and sesame seeds and poppy seeds and sapir and similar items;
(3) Garden seeds – The other seeds, which are not suitable for human consumption but which produce edible fruit.

13. R’ Avraham Danziger, Nishmat Adam 2:119:20
ושמעתי שבק"ק פיורדא בשנת תקל"א ל"ב שהיה רעב גדול באשכנז הושיבו ב"ד והתירו בולבעס שקורין עדרעפיל כי באשכנז אין אוכלין ג"כ בולבעס כי שם עושין קמח מהם...
I have heard that in Fyorda, in 5531-5532 there was a great famine in Germany, and they established a beit din and permitted potatoes, for in Germany they also prohibit potatoes because people make flour from them.

14. R’ Avraham Danziger, Chayyei Adam 2:127:1
וכן בכל מנהגי ישראל שנהגו באיזה דבר אף על פי שלא עשו דבר זה לתקנה אלא שנהגו כך מעצמם, איכא איסור לאו מדברי נביאים כמו שכתוב אל תטוש כו'.
And so regarding all Jewish customs, when they practice something, even though it was not a formal enactment but only something that people did on their own, there is a prohibition against violating it, from the prophets: ‘Do not reject the Torah of your mother.’

15. R’ Yosef Teumim, Pri Megadim Orach Chaim 464:1
מה שקורין ער׳ד עפיל כמדומה שנוהגין היתר כי אין בכלל קטניות וגדולים הם ולית בהו תערובת תבואה
What they call potato, it appears that people permit it for it is not kitniyot, and they are large and there is not grain mixed in with them.

16. R’ Chizkiyah d’Silva, Pri Chadash Orach Chaim 461:2
וכתב בס׳ כנה״ג שלעשות פאשטיליש הנהוגות בכל שבת זכר למן וכן מה שנזהגין שכשמטגנין דגים בשמן במחבת טחים אותם בקמח כדי שלא ידבקו כל זה אסור לעשותו
ואף במצה אפויה משים מעשה שהיה שאשת חבר עשתה כן וששכינתהחשבה שהיה קמח ממש ולמחר טגנה דגים בקמח ממש ולפיכך יש לאסור מפני מראית העין ואני אומר שהכל מותר מן הדין ואין לנו לגזור גזירות מדעתינו ומה בכך אם אשה אחת טעתה בדין והרי בפרק אין מעמידין אמרינן גבי קנקנים של גוים דרבינא שרא ליה לרב חייא בריה דרב יצחק למרמא בהו שיכרא אזל רמא בהו חמרא ואפ״ה לא חש למילתיה אמר אקראי בעלמא הוא והכא נמי דכותה
The Kenesset haGedolah wrote that one may not make the pastilles which people have every Shabbat to remember the Mun, and he wrote that the practice of frying fish in oil in a pan, coating them in flour to prevent them from sticking, is prohibited as well. One may not even use baked matzah, because once a wife of a chaver did this and her neighbor thought it was flour, and the next day the neighbor fried fish in flour. Therefore, one should prohibit this as marit ayin.
I say that all of this is permitted, and we should not create decrees ourselves. Why does it matter if one woman made a mistake? The gemara (Avodah Zarah 33b) mentions a case in which Raveina permitted Rav Chiyya breih d’Rav Yitzchak to put beer in a barrel, and he put wine in the barrel instead, and yet Raveina was not concerned; he said it was just a one-time event. The same is true here.

17. R’ Moshe Feinstein, Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim 3:63
אין לנו בדבר אלא מה שמפורש שנהגו לאסור וכן מה שידוע ומפורסם. וגם יש ליתן טעם דדין מה שנאסר במנהג הא אין זה דבר הנאסר בקבוץ חכמים, אלא שהנהיגו את העם להחמיר שלא לאכול מינים אלו שהיה מצוי לאוכלם מפני הטעמים דחשש מיני דגן שנתערבו שקשה לבדוק ומפני שעושין קמחים, אבל כיון שלא תיקנו בקבוץ חכמים לאכול דברים שיש חשש שיתערב בהן מיני דגן ודברים שעושין מהם קמח, אלא שהנהיגו שלא לאכול איזה מינים לא נאסרו אלא המינים שהנהיגו ולא שאר מינים שלא הנהיגו מפני שלא היו מצויין אז... ולאלו שיש להם מנהג ביחוד שלא לאכול פינאט אסור גם בפינאט אבל מספק אין לאסור.
We only have that which they clearly accustomed themselves to prohibit, and that which is known and publicized. One may also explain that something which has been prohibited by custom does not have the same law as something which has been prohibited by a gathering of sages. They accustomed the nation to be strict, not to eat from these foods which were common in their diet, because of the concern for grain being mixed in and hard to detect, and because they made these foods into flour. But since they did not enact, in a gathering of sages, a prohibition against eating foods in which grain might be mixed and goods from which they make flour, but they only accustomed people not to eat certain foods, only the foods for which they developed this custom are included, and not other types of food for which the custom was not developed, because they were not common then… And for those who have a specific custom not to eat peanuts, peanuts are prohibited. But one should not prohibit this out of doubt.

What about concern for contamination? The importance of practical shimush

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Friday, March 12, 2010

The Big Orange Splot and High Self-Monitors

I heard an interesting term on the radio this morning: High Self-Monitors. The label refers to people who pay attention to the way they are perceived by others, and try to modify their behavior in order to satisfy others’ expectations.

I was a High Self-Monitor as a kid; I was the one who hadn’t seen the latest movie, but who instinctively knew to hover in the group that was discussing the movie until I had absorbed enough to fake it. I didn’t always act on the monitoring intelligence – hence my inclusion in the “Normals” instead of the “Dragons” in junior high school – but I was always watching for what was cool.

The context of the radio piece was a study published in BusinessWeek ("Online dating as honest as real life") and on ("Online dating liars: Why they do it"), showing that people who lie (in ‘minor’ ways) on on-line dating sites, such as by saying they “look like a model,” are more likely to be eager-to-please. Such people are called “high self-monitors,” and they are more likely to find a mate. As the newsreader put it, low self-monitors are more likely to be brutally honest, and alone.

They certainly had a point; even though I get upset when people dissemble in order to please me, I can’t ignore the fact that they are trying to make me happy with them, and that on some level this is a good thing.

I listened to the radio report with a parent’s ambivalence. I want my children to be high self-monitors so that they will fit in, but I also want them to have the confidence to chart their own paths, and do their own thing. I want my kids to follow the advice of Pirkei Avos and use public approval as a key way to gauge the morality of their decisions, but I also want my kids to be Mr. Plumbean in that '70s classic, The Big Orange Splot, doing what they feel is right rather than what they feel will help them fit in.

Of course, this is also a shul rabbi’s problem – on the one hand, a Rabbi wants to work with people, and that comes with a degree of wanting to please. On the other hand, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s classic observation - that rabbis who are universally approved aren’t doing their jobs – makes the point that a successful rabbi must buck the trend, too.

I expect that the answer is a Kohelesian גם מזה אל תנח ידיך, “Hold on to this, but do not let go of that.”

Be a High Self-Monitor, in the sense that we should train ourselves, and our kids, to pick up on social cues and be aware of how we will be perceived. At the same time, be a Low Self-Monitor in the sense that we should be willing to ditch that public opinion of which we are aware, when we feel it’s wrong.

Be a High Self-Monitor on issues of grave public consequence, taking public opinion into strong consideration. But be a Low Self-Monitor in deciding what music you like, what sort of art you like, in who you are inside.

And if someone lies to you in describing himself, don’t get upset. Remember: It’s just because he wants your approval.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Koreich: Two Views from Rav Kook

[This week's Toronto Torah is here!]

I’ve spent quite a bit of time this year reading Rav Kook’s comments on the Haggadah. I have come to believe that Rav Kook saw the Seder as a performance centered on the food, and the Maggid, the re-telling of our experience of suffering and redemption, as a complement to the food.

In particular, Rav Kook’s views of Koreich are fascinating; he presents two dichotomies to explain the Matzah/Marror sandwich. Here are excerpts explaining the two views:

1. Matzah = Freedom, Marror = Servitude, and we need to develop a unity of the two to be true servants of Gd
We must understand these two forces, that of servitude and that of freedom, not as separate forces which operate independently, each with its own role, but as two joined, complementary forces…

The overall goal will be realized only with the knowledge and recognition that these two forces are not contradictory, but are joined in creating the world’s ultimate Freedom, the honor and the powerful desirability of which is not revealed unless it is crowned by exalted Servitude, servitude before the King of Glory, which is also the ultimate freedom.

Therefore, the perfect form of Freedom comes when it is bound together with Servitude, such that a person will find within himself the total control which is suitable for a truly free person, who reigns as well upon the greatest of forces, which is the force of freedom itself.

2. Matzah = Realized Redemption, Marror = Preparation for Redemption, and we see Yetziat Mitzrayim as both extant redemption and preparation for future exile and then future redemption
(Rav Kook makes this observation on the passage of Maggid about reciting the story of our departure from Egypt during the day and at night.)

Matzah is parallel to the goal of accepting the yoke of Divine monarchy… Marror is bceause they embittered the lives of our ancestors, which is the preparation for the revelation of HaShem upon us in the future…

Therefore we say, ‘Because of this [Gd acted for me when I left Egypt],’ and not ‘Because of these,’ plural, to demonstrate the unity of the preparation and the goal, the unity of day and night.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

New from Google Labs: Google Honor

[Side note: Mazal Tov to me – At some point this past week we passed 100,000 page views on this blog. Of course, the number is somewhat undercounted, since many visits are not recorded by Sitemeter. Still, I appreciate the milestone, and thanks for reading!]

I am always amused when I check my “referrals” – the searches that bring people to my site. Some are conventional, like “Purim rabbi costume” “how to choose a rabbi” and “Judaism prohibits fun.” Others are more quirky, as in “husband punishment” and “Female Messianic Rebbetzin.” But among my favorites are the searches people do on their own names.

It’s no secret that people search for their own names on the Internet; who doesn’t want to know what people are saying about him, where she is being quoted, etc? And, yes, it’s a good idea to keep up on that sort of thing, just like we track ours credit ratings.

So I’ve been wondering. How about a new Google App: Google Honor.

Google Honor would fit with the company’s attempts to provide data of interest to the public: Develop software that finds people’s names on web pages, and assigns those names a score based on the positive or negative adjectives that appear in proximity to their names.

Higher scores would go to someone whose name appears in a sentence like, “Mordechai Torczyner is an amazing speaker,” lower scores to someone whose name appears in a sentence like, “Tim Horton is an awful speaker.”

Of course, this would require some optimizing, given popular phrases the meanings of which are vague to a non-human ear. As in, “I found Adam Smith's claims incredible,” and, “Donna Jones' work is amazingly bad,” and “Jason Menelaus's topic was frightening, but he handled it well.” The software would need significant sophistication.

But imagine if you could search your name and then get a score: 318, or 205, or -4350.

Imagine if you could search for your name and find out how nicely, or not nicely, people are talking about you, in just an instant.

Imagine if you could watch your popularity ebb and flow.

Imagine if you could know, with a simple number, exactly what people think about you.

Imagine – um.

Okay, maybe not.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Yesterday's Chag haSemichah at YU

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

Thanks to the largesse of RIETS and the coordination of CJF, I was able to fly in for yesterday's Chag haSemikhah at YU.

I was able to witness more than 200 young men become rabbis; to participate in a gathering which hosted more inspirational talmidei chachamim than I can readily count; to celebrate with two members of our kollel, Netanel Javasky and Meir Lipschitz, as they became musmachim; to see the eager smiles on the faces of the men who will replace my many colleagues who have made aliyah; to meet many old friends with whom I've been in and out of contact over the past 13+ years, since receiving my own semichah.

A particular source of joy: Hearing that the majority of musmachim who will be 'practicing' will do so outside of the New York area.

It was exciting, watching these young rabbis embark on a life I began recently enough that I can still remember my frame of mind in those days. Not my chag hasemichah; I was fortunate to sit next to a friend yesterday who was able to remind me of what happened our chag, which is good, because I couldn't remember anything at all. But I remember what it felt like, being declared a rabbi, going to Pawtucket to serve a community, feeling entirely over my head in so many situations. To crib a line from R' Adir Posy's speech at the chag, I remember the first time they asked whether there was a Rabbi in the house, and the answer was “Yes, that's me.”

Part of me, as always, is an incorrigible curmudgeon, and wants to tell these young men that they have no clue what they're entering. The learning curve in those first few years is incredibly steep. I remember the great respect I felt for shul rabbis when I suddenly became one and realized just how much they do, and how little of it I had ever understood.

But they'll figure it out on their own, and when they do, they'll look back at their naïve younger selves much the way I look back at my own naïve younger self.

One of the speakers yesterday, I believe it was Rabbi Yona Reiss, cited the famous dictum, “הרבנות מקברת את בעליה,” “Authority buries its holders.” There is much, much truth in that line, which על פי פשוטו, in its straightforward sense, is a warning against taking positions of authority, the rabbinate included.

But as I listened to the speeches, I had another thought. All trades bury their holders, some sooner and some later; all livelihoods, all careers, take our life force as our investment. Stock trading buries its holders, middle management buries its holders, medicine buries its holders.

The question is not whether your career buries you, for all careers, in some sense, do. The question is what your career provides to take with you at that time. The rabbinate does not only take; it also gives. It does not only drain energy and strength; it also provides an opportunity to build a real, worthwhile life. It does not only demand; it also gives. Taking the line homiletically, הרבנות מקברת את בעליה, The rabbinate provides a proper burial for its holders.

And even taking the line literally: הרבנות מקברת את בעליה, but, in my opinion, what a way to go.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Danger Signs

I had an upgraded version of The Stranger Talk with my oldest on Friday night.

This is a talk we’ve had at least twice before, but as he gets older and interacts more – and with less supervision – with the greater world, I feel the need to reinforce it, and to be more specific about my concerns. He's not quite a pre-teen yet, but he's getting there, and I'm getting nervous.

So we talked about the usual issues: People you see in public places, people in shul, teachers and relatives and friends and friends’ parents and so on. And Internet use, naturally.

And I tried to help him define Danger Signs – ways to identify people as potential risks.

This is not simple. I don’t want to make my son paranoid and fearful around everyone he sees. I also don’t want to make him judgmental, so that everyone who doesn’t fit a certain ‘safe’ mold is considered defective.

Beyond the obvious reminders about being touched inappropriately or feeling intimidated, we came up with a couple of Danger Signs which should warn him to escape the situation:

• Adults who look to spend time with pre-teens, without parents present and without a formal role [teacher, shul rabbi].

• Adults who interact childishly with young children.

But I’m not even comfortable with those relatively simple signs. In one light, they are too limiting; #2 excludes adults who just like to joke around with kids. In another light, they are too permissive; #1 allows access to people who start out with a formal role but want to inappropriately transcend it.

So, of course, I tell him to ask me if you have any questions about particular situations, so that I will be able to modify the rules to fit specific cases.

I’d like to hear from other parents:

What are your Danger Signs? What do you tell your children to notice, and what do you tell them to do when they see it? And at what age?

All responses welcome.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Israel Apartheid Week at York University

[This week's Toronto Torah is here.]

The week has been a packed week, and it’s not over yet. Purim was so busy, and Pesach preparation is hitting hard. We have many Pesach programs to plan, learning to do, shiurim to prepare, as well as all of the usual shiurim. And, on Sunday I’m hopping an early morning flight to YU for the Chag haSemichah, to return that night having lost my one day with my kids.

So when someone suggested yesterday afternoon that I stop in at York University to witness firsthand the inhuman wickedness that is licensed under the oxymoronic Israel Apartheid Week banner and with the complicity and funding of York University’s biased administration, I had excuses ready to hand: Had the suggestion come earlier, I could have worked it in, but I just don’t have any gaps in the schedule. Meetings through lunch and dinner, the last day of this orgy of hatred is Thursday so there’s no time, you know the story.

But that’s not really why I don't want to go.

It’s not that I don’t know how to do the campus thing. I’ve attended rallies and demonstrations. Alongside an esteemed professor, I debated two anti-Israel professors at Moravian College several years ago, in front of a very hostile crowd. I’ve written newspaper articles and engaged in on-line activism. I know how to be present even if the apostles of animus and pablum propagandists won’t listen.

I just really don’t want to do it. I can’t see going and shouting down mobs of haters. I don’t need to be there; who volunteers for root canal, without anesthesia? And so I’m reluctant to go.

But that’s bad, very bad. Because that’s exactly what they’re counting on. They’re counting on me, and thousands like me, to sit this one out. Sitting this one out makes it easier for us to sit out the next one, and the next one. And, eventually, the voices speaking out against their lies and their trumped-up narrative become smaller and weaker, and the boycotts become stronger, and the voice of civilization and humanity and kindness is outshouted by ugly people with ugly visions for what they will do to those nasty Jews who dare to survive and thrive in the middle of Dar al-Islam.

So I guess I will go, after all. Today.


[Update: I went - and it was a dud, I'm glad to say. Nothing at all going on. A small lecture to an interested group in a classroom, no big demonstrations or displays around - other than the pro-Israel booths! I'm relieved.]

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Passover Seder Preparation Checklist

I made up this "Seder Preparation" list for an Introductory Seder program several years ago, and people found it useful. It's intended to be very basic and simple.

(I believe I took the marror and matzah measurements from Rav Eider zt"l's book on the laws of Pesach.)

Seder Checklist

Good translations and pictures are a plus!
Include Haggadot designed for children
Include toys for children, too

Pillows, Sofas or Cushioned Chairs

For the Seder Plate (Ke’arah)
Shankbone (Zroa) and Roasted Egg (Beitzah), or two other cooked foods
Small amount of bitter herb (Maror)
A second small amount of bitter herb, according to some customs (Chazeret)
A green which will not be used as the bitter herb (Karpas)

Wine / Grape Juice
Cups that hold at least 4 oz (but not too large; one should drink the majority of the cup each time!)
Wine and/or Grape Juice – At least 16 ounces per person

For Washing - Towels

Any item which is halachically considered to grow from the ground rather than a true tree – celery, cooked potato, banana, pineapple

Salt water or vinegar for dipping

A minimum of 3 whole Matzot which will sit on a tray
Note: Overall one needs at least 1¼ round shmurah matzot per person, for the mitzvot of the Seder
Matzah Covers and Afikoman Bags for each set of 3 Matzot

Bitter Herb (Maror)
If ground horseradish – 38 grams (1.4 fluid oz) per person – half for Maror, half for Korech
If lettuce stalks – 6*5 inches per person – half for Maror, half for Korech
If lettuce leaves – 18*10 inches per person – half for Maror, half for Korech

Charoset for dipping the Maror

Popular Customs
Egg and Salt Water (to dip before the meal)
An Exterior Door (to leave open all seder, or at least for Sh'foch Chamatcha)

Please send me additional items I forgot to include...

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

What do rabbis want?

In response to my Purim post, Fruma asks: What would the ads look like placed BY rabbis seeking congregations?

How about these:

* LOR seeking an L to serve as their OR. Versatile and open-minded and non-judgmental, willing to engage all types of Jews, left and center and right, who obey his every word without question.

* Rabbi with a generous heart and enthusiastic desire to serve looking to give, give, give to a likeminded community which also gives, preferably in US dollars.

* Recovering from a difficult relationship, seeking warm and understanding shul with caring congregants, active committees and sincere students, to counsel, lead and teach. Allergic to lawyers.

But to answer your question more seriously:

Some rabbis want a relatively quiet community where they can teach Torah, build relationships with people and help Jews live good Jewish lives. They are not looking for political intrigue, and they don’t particularly care to comment on the major quarrels of the greater community so long as their congregants are not directly affected or influenced. Perhaps they might publish a sefer, someday, so that all of the work they put into their shiurim and bulletin articles and derashos might have a life beyond the moment.

Others want a platform, a shul in which they can develop Big Picture ideas, the better to shape the future of local and global Jewry. They love their congregants, but they also believe that doing more for the greater world will also aid those who are geographically closest to them. They believe themselves a Moshe, or a Dovid haMelech, an architect of the Jewish world. Further, they believe that their own meta-thinking will influence their congregants to think in such terms, to contemplate the isms of the day: The Role of Government, Feminism, Universalism vs. Parochialism, and so on.

There are rabbis who would like to be halachic authorities and Torah teachers, presenting classes and learning with chavrutot and writing articles. They may seek a more cerebral community, with a commitment to intellectual growth.

There are rabbis who are entertainers by nature, seeking to connect with people on a personal level, forging relationships and, through this channel, helping bring them closer to Judaism. They may seek a class-going, participatory community with which to engage.

There are rabbis who are administrators and builders by nature, seeking to create, manage, and sometimes micro-manage institutions which will serve the individuals of today and tomorrow and the next. They may thrive in a variety of communities, because Jewish communities are forever identifying needs and creating institutions to serve them.

Fruma: This is incomplete and a bit rushed this morning, but does it help?

Monday, March 1, 2010

3-2, eh?

Okay, so the US lost the gold medal hockey game to the Canadians.

In overtime.

A measly one-goal differential.

After the US beat Canada 5-3 in an earlier game.

And after the US thrashed everyone else, beating Finland 6-1 in the semi-finals while Canada just squeaked by Slovakia (Slovakia!) 3-2.

But, yes, Canada took the gold medal. Fine. I can live with it.

I can even live with the guys who put a "We Won" poster on my door last night.

Especially with the following “Top Ten” list of responses to all of the “3-2, eh?” ribbing I’ve been taking:

10. I’m glad; this Olympic victory will definitely make our kollel even more attractive to prospective avrechim.

9. Okay, but when was the last time a Canadian team won the Stanley Cup? (Answer: 17 years ago, 1992-1993, Montreal Canadians – even though there are 6 Canadian teams out of 30 overall...)

8. The Olympics are treif Greek hedonism, anyway.

7. Great; hope that keeps you guys happy up here for the next four years or so.

6. The series MVP was an American! (Ryan Miller, and much-deserved I might add.)

5. Interesting to realize that only 2 members of the Canadian roster play on Canadian teams (Iginla and Luongo); the other 21 players are on American payrolls. Guess they really love the old Maple Leaf,huh?

4. Fine, you won, but you know that Sidney Crosby goes shopping at Target in the US, like every other Canadian, before heading home to Nova Scotia.

3. Does it really count as “owning the podium” if the US wins more medals than you?

2. And while we’re on the topic of medals, should we really be counting medals in Curling at all?

1. Huh? Was there an Olympics? I didn’t really hear much about it here in Toronto.

You just wait for Sochi…