Thursday, April 29, 2010

Rabbi PhD

Every once in a while I get the urge to go back to school, generally either for a law degree or a doctorate in history, philosophy, English literature, that sort of field.

I generally sit quietly until the silly ambition goes away.

I have a few reasons for my occasional desire to go in these directions:
• Solid advice from Rabbi Dr. Twerski many years back, that rabbis should find a hobby or another pursuit in which they can find satisfaction. He especially recommended that the pursuit have some potential financial remuneration, so that the rabbi not feel trapped in his job for lack of other options;

• The knowledge that I have other talents that I’m not using, which could help round me out;

• Envy of my colleagues who have gone this route, and seem to be enjoying it;

• The desire to spend some of my time in a completely different environment.

No, it’s not about the title of “Rabbi Dr.” I could never see using that, even if I had it. It’s more about the pursuit, the experience, than anything else.

But it’s not going to happen. The realities of how I parcel out my time, and the pressures I create upon myself and my family every time I add another duty, keep me from going that route. My job has so many open-ended elements that I could easily spend every waking moment on it and still feel like it’s un-done; add in another academic career, and I’ll be קרח מכאן ומכאן (“bald from both directions,” a talmudic description of a man who has a young wife who plucks his white hairs and an older wife who plucks his black hairs).

Of course, if I stopped blogging that would free up a solid 20 minutes each day… not enough for a PhD, though.

“Rabbi, I think you’re a feminist!”

A few weeks ago I delivered a shiur on the role of women in settling then-Palestine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, linking it to the midrashic (and later) praise of the women who emerged from Egypt and entered Canaan.

As part of that shiur, I re-capped the history of the female-founded institutions of that early modern age: The Women Workers Council, WIZO, Federation of Hebrew Women, the Sejera Collective, Women’s Organization for Cultural Work in Palestine, Kinneret Women’s Farm and so on. I contended that the pro-Israel tendencies of the women who emerged from Egypt were the spiritual forebears of those pro-Israel tendencies in modern women, even if the religious expressions of the different generations varied.

I also discussed the saga of women’s suffrage in that era, the debate as to whether the right to vote was a matter of halachah at all, and the ultimate resolution of that debate.

Afterward, a woman commented to me, “Rabbi, I think you’re a feminist!”

That conversation came to mind this morning, when I heard two (male) radio commentators discussing whether girls should be permitted to play on boys’ high school sports teams. They argued that should girls migrate to the boys’ team, that would perpetuate the inferior quality of girls’ sports and keep more girls from developing their talents. Better to keep the girls on the girls’ teams, and so elevate the level of their league’s play.

I was uncomfortable with this argument. I do think high school teams should be separate, but my arguments are about sexuality, not about the level of competition. The argument of “elevate the girls’ league” sounds like (1) wishful thinking, and (2) ex post facto rationalization by people who want to keep them gurlz out, rather than reasoned argument.

It kind of reminds me of the weaker arguments against ordaining women. There are substantive issues - tzniut, for example - but too often the debate is on less-substantive grounds.

Re: Sports - If the central decisive debate is really between the communal benefit of the girls’ league and individual benefit in a more competitive forum, I’d say to stop meddling. Let the girls play in the greatest forum for which they qualify, and quit the fence-building and social engineering. Do we force 55-year-olds to play in senior leagues in order to elevate the quality of senior play, or do we allow them to play in whatever league will take them?

So does that make me a feminist?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Science Update: Chimps and Death, Melanin Protection for Radiation Therapy, and Learning Hebrew

Not much time for original writing today, but here are excerpts from a few recent ScienceDaily reports I have found interesting:

How Chimps Deal With Death: Studies Offer Rare Glimpses
ScienceDaily (Apr. 27, 2010) — Two studies in the April 27th issue of Current Biology, a Cell Press publication, offer rare glimpses into the ways that chimpanzees deal with the deaths of those closest to them. In one case, researchers describe the final hours and moment of death of an older female chimp living in a small group at a UK safari park as captured on video...
In the days leading up to the chimp's death, the group was very quiet and paid close attention to her, the researchers report. Immediately before she died, she received much grooming and caressing from the others, who appeared to test her for signs of life as she died. They left her soon after, but her adult daughter returned and remained by her mother all night. When keepers removed the mother's body the next day, the chimpanzees remained calm and subdued. For several days they avoided sleeping on the platform where the female had died, even though it was normally a favored sleeping spot, and remained subdued for some time after the death.

Novel Nanoparticles Prevent Radiation Damage
ScienceDaily (Apr. 27, 2010) — Tiny, melanin-covered nanoparticles may protect bone marrow from the harmful effects of radiation therapy, according to scientists at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University who successfully tested the strategy in mouse models. Infusing these particles into human patients may hold promise in the future.

Teaching a Foreign Language? Best Teach in the Accent of the Listener
ScienceDaily (Feb. 17, 2010) — Perception of second language speech is easier when it is spoken in the accent of the listener and not in the 'original' accent of that language, shows a new study from the University of Haifa. The study was published in the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research.
Many adult schools teaching second languages insist on exposing their students to the languages in their 'original' accents. However, this new study, carried out by Dr. Raphiq Ibrahim and Dr. Mark Leikin of the University of Haifa's Edmond J. Safra Brain Research Center for the Study of Learning Disabilities, Prof. Zohar Eviatar of the Department of Psychology and Prof. Shimon Sapir of the Department of Learning Disabilities, found that this system is not necessarily the best and certainly not the most expeditious.

Monday, April 26, 2010

What I learned from a High School program at the RCA Convention

My primary reasons for attending this year's RCA Convention were that I was asked to present a session, and that I wanted to re-connect with friends. This morning, though, I gained a lesson I find significantly more valuable.

I attended a session this morning in which high school seniors from the New York area (some from Jewish schools, some not) answered questions about what it’s like to be a person and a Jew in high school today. They talked about drugs and alcohol and sexual activity, as well as relationships with their rabbis, with their parents, and with Judaism.

Most of what was said was not particularly novel [although I did learn that – contrary to what I had thought – Facebook and Twitter have not yet fallen out of fashion]. The yitzrim are the same, and the prevalence of teen involvement in those yitzrim remains high. No novelties there, no Generation Gap there.

But I did learn something that was new to me: I found the current Generation Gap. The difference between today’s eighteen year old and the eighteen year old of even ten years ago is Control. Access. Power. And it all comes down to Communication.

The same Communication Revolution that has empowered remote populations, economically disadvantaged populations and government-repressed populations has also empowered teenagers.

The result: Today's high schooler has far more independent power than we did as high schoolers, and they know it.

Ten years ago, and certainly twenty years ago when I was in high school, we had no cell phones, no personal email, no ability to text. The result was that nearly all communication took place within a zone that our parents could monitor.

Friends called the home phone to talk, and our parents answered; the only way to communicate in private was by mail, and who was going to write a letter? Sure, we could talk in school, but with teachers present and the fear of supervision, we were very limited.

Today, teens can text each other, send pictures to each other, call each other on cell phones, hold a video chat, and all directly; it’s easy to talk and make plans and arrange whatever they choose.

I never really thought about the impact of all of that that independent communication before, but it’s so clear to me now.

Separately, I learned something else: As part of the program, the students discussed the role of a Rabbi. One person present commented that Rabbis are more benign than parents, because the Rabbi (assuming confidentiality) is not able to punish them. He can only help.

The conversation really made me miss the shul rabbinate. I was never the best at getting close to high schoolers, in no small part because of the reflex reaction of “I’m not cool enough” triggered by being near adolescents. But it was always something I wanted to do better, and I miss not having done more. I can do it somewhat in my current position, but one day, one day…

Sunday, April 25, 2010

En retard 7:30

[For non-Francophones, the title of this post means "Late - 7:30 PM". We ended up taking off at 8 PM or so.]

And so it begins, the delays that are native to Pearson Airport... It was a 7:15 PM flight, who knows when it will be by the time we take off...?

For your amusement and mine, here's a real live news article regarding a new Toronto regulation:

City orders condo developers to buy annual metropass for every unit

Developers building condos on Toronto transit lines will now have to buy every unit a TTC metropass for a year in order to obtain condominium approval from the city, a policy critics say comes at a high cost and without proof people will use it.

“How does the city know that everyone is going to want or need a metropass?” said Stephen Dupuis, president and chief executive officer of Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD).

City council voted yesterday in favour of the policy, which Mr. Dupuis said adds a systemic cost of about $1,400 per unit. He said his organization is pro-transit, “but people are going to take transit if it suits their lifestyle.”

Councillor Howard Moscoe, however, believes it “will cause people on transit lines to abandon their cars.”

He pushed the initiative forward, which passed council without debate. The policy states the cost of the metropasses cannot be passed on to the condo buyer.

City staff describe it as a “transportation demand management measure” that is aimed at encouraging transit use and reducing dependency on cars. It applies to condo projects with 20 or more units in areas that “are or will be well-served by transit.”

Yet more paternalism by the Canadian government... these policies drive me to lean more Republican every day.

The challenge of instructing others

[A new, excellent edition of Haveil Havalim is here]

One of the most difficult aspects of the rabbinate is the need - job requirement, really - to correct communal or private behavior. Talking in shul, kashrut standards at home, commitment to minyan and to learning Torah, education of children, lashon hara, support for Israel, Jew/non-Jew relations... synagogue rabbis are expected to provide leadership which includes not only modeling, but also instruction, in these areas and more. It's tough.

This past Shabbos I delivered one shiur on the topic [tried to cram in way too much material to the time; I hope people got something out of it], and then I delivered another, related shiur on it this morning. Still working through the ideas in my own head.

As I asked at the Shabbos class: How do you instruct people who don't want to be instructed? What do you do when someone at your Shabbos table mentions his latest way to make money - and it involves fraud? Or when he makes a racist comment, or speaks lashon hara?

Here are three basic sources related to the topic:

Talmud, Erchin 16b
תניא, א"ר טרפון: תמה אני אם יש בדור הזה שמקבל תוכחה, אם אמר לו טול קיסם מבין עיניך, אמר לו טול קורה מבין עיניך. אמר רבי אלעזר בן עזריה: תמיהני אם יש בדור הזה שיודע להוכיח…
Rabbi Tarfon said: I would be stunned if anyone in this generation would accept rebuke. If one would say, ‘Take a splinter from between your eyes,’ he would reply, ‘Take a beam from between your eyes.’
Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah said: I would be stunned if anyone in this generation actually would know how to rebuke.

Talmud, Yevamot 65b
ואמר רבי אילעא משום ר' אלעזר בר' שמעון: כשם שמצוה על אדם לומר דבר הנשמע, כך מצוה על אדם שלא לומר דבר שאינו נשמע. רבי אבא אומר: חובה, שנאמר: +משלי ט'+ אל תוכח לץ פן ישנאך הוכח לחכם ויאהבך.
And R’ Ila’a said, citing R’ Elazar b’R’ Shimon: Just as there is a mitzvah to say that which will be heard, so there is a mitzvah to avoid saying that which will not be heard. Rabbi Abba said: It is obligatory, as it is written, ‘Do not rebuke a scorner, lest he hate you. Rebuke a wise man and he will love you.’

Talmud, Shabbat 55a
מעולם לא יצתה מדה טובה מפי הקדוש ברוך הוא וחזר בה לרעה חוץ מדבר זה, דכתיב +יחזקאל ט+ ויאמר ה' אליו עבר בתוך העיר בתוך ירושלים והתוית תו על מצחות האנשים הנאנחים והנאנקים על כל התועבות הנעשות בתוכה וגו'. אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא לגבריאל: לך ורשום על מצחן של צדיקים תיו של דיו, שלא ישלטו בהם מלאכי חבלה. ועל מצחם של רשעים תיו של דם, כדי שישלטו בהן מלאכי חבלה. אמרה מדת הדין לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא: רבונו של עולם, מה נשתנו אלו מאלו? אמר לה: הללו צדיקים גמורים, והללו רשעים גמורים. אמרה לפניו: רבונו של עולם, היה בידם למחות ולא מיחו! אמר לה: גלוי וידוע לפני, שאם מיחו בהם - לא יקבלו מהם. אמרה לפניו: רבונו של עולם, אם לפניך גלוי - להם מי גלוי?
Gd never expressed a good verdict and then retracted it to cause harm, other than in this case: “Gd said to him, pass through the city, through Yerushalayim, and draw a ‘Tav’ on the foreheads of the people…for all of the abominable acts performed in it.”
Gd said to Gavriel: Go inscribe a ‘Tav’ in ink on the heads of the righteous, so that the angels of destruction will not have any effect on them. Inscribe a ‘Tav’ in blood on the heads of the wicked, so that the angels of destruction will have an effect on them.
The trait of Justice said before Gd: Master of the Universe, what is the difference between these and those?
Gd responded: These are completely righteous, those are completely wicked!
It said: Master of the Universe, they ought to have protested, and they did not do so!
Gd responded: I know clearly that had they protested, the people would not have accepted it from them.
It said: Master of the Universe, if to You it is clear, to them is it clear?

So which is it - are we entitled to say, "They won't listen," or not?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Do we hate learning?

[This week's Toronto Torah is here!]

A brief dyspeptic thought on our educational system, in both schools and synagogues.

A few weeks back I heard a rabbi observe that our Jewish education system actually hates learning. He was talking about a certain weakness in our schools regarding special education, but I took it in a somewhat different direction: Much of our school and synagogue educational system hates the process of learning. We would prefer that our students simply know everything; we would like to avoid the learning, itself.

Contrast the way we learn with the way we eat:

I enjoy eating. I’m a closet foodie; I like ice cream, hamburgers, green vegetables, maple syrup (Good Canadian that I am), pasta, fish, bread, you name it. I like reading recipes. If I could eat constantly and not worry about the time, cost, and health involved, I would. I don’t want to be full. I don’t want to come to the end of an eating process.

A parallel in learning would be to say, “I want to learn. I enjoy sweating a text, analyzing and wondering and questioning and suggesting and rejecting and straining my brain to climb the mountain and then smash the mountain in little pieces. I don’t want to know. I don’t want to finish a course of study.”

But many of our schools don’t encourage that; we teach our frustrated students (adults as well as children) easy tricks of memory or shortcuts to pseudo-comprehension. We get lazy in explaining difficult topics without the difficulties, and we teach our kids to get lazy. We would be happy if we could give our kids a pill or a neural implant that would provide instant knowledge; the only reason we teach them math rather than rely on calculators is our concern that a calculator may not always be available. We don’t really want them to learn. And so this is what we teach them: Knowledge is good, Learning is bad.

To use another analogy, it’s a little like working out at the gym: Some people enjoy a good workout, like to sweat and strain and push their limits. But sometimes we get bored during our workout, and we just want to be done with it and emerge looking good. We don’t want the workout, we just want the results.

We don’t want the learning, we just want the knowledge, and I believe that’s corrupting and destructive. The Torah’s mitzvah is to learn, not to know. The search really is what matters.

I’m not a schools expert; I don’t know enough about educational administration to say, “This is how it oughta be.” But those are my two cents.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Grow! Now!

I’ve been sending out daily “Torah Thought” emails for 13 years now; these are just straight texts, almost always without editorial comment (other than that which naturally occurs in translation). Quite often, I use a well-known midrash or a passage of gemara, and as I look at it, I realize that I never really comprehended it before.

This morning I used the following midrash:
א"ר סימון אין לך כל עשב ועשב, שאין לו מזל ברקיע שמכה אותו, ואומר לו גדל, הה"ד (איוב לח) הידעת חקות שמים אם תשים משטרו בארץ וגו', לשון שוטר

Rabbi Simon said: Every single blade of grass has a force [lit. constellation] in the heavens which strikes it and says, ‘Grow!’
This is the meaning of the verse (Job 38:33), ‘Do you know the laws of the heavens, and can you place their control [mishtar] over the earth?’ Mishtar is an expression of shoteir [meaning, an enforcing officer].

A few thoughts here:

1. We often think of this as a lesson in hashgachah pratit, Divine supervision of all elements of Creation. Even an individual blade of grass, lost in the sameness of billions of other blades, is supervised by an agent of Gd.

2. This is meant to translate to us as humans, of course; we are the blades of grass, and although we may feel lost in the crowd, we each have our own constellation guiding our growth. Further, the passage cited from Job notes that the stars/Heavens are given power, but only in order to service life on Earth. We remain the teleological center of the universe.

3. But the brutality of the line takes it in yet another direction. An officer standing over the blade of grass/human being, striking it and ordering, ‘Grow!’… This raises images of taskmasters whipping Jewish slaves in Egypt, or of more modern versions of cruelty.

Certainly, this constellation wishes the best for us; the blade of grass that does not grow will be crowded out, choked and overshadowed. Growth is to its/our eternal advantage. But here we see how someone may have the best of intentions for us, and yet manifest those intentions in a way that is harsh, perhaps unnecessarily and painfully so, perhaps even counterproductively so.

4. And perhaps that’s why a constellation is specified as the helper here, to make that point about inferior management. Divine nurturing is generally rendered as benevolent, even gentle; this voice is demanding, stentorian, even abusive. Gd is a protector, complete and perfect, but His agents are inferior, and their work, while directed by high ideals, is imperfect.

Clearly, there is more here; this is a quick read. What additional lessons are we meant to glean from the celestial approach to every blade of grass?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Yom haZikaron, Yom haAtzmaut, and something larger than ourselves

I always cry on Yom haZikaron [Israel's Memorial Day], and this year was no exception as I listened to Cheryl Mandel, mother of Daniel Mandel z"l, speak at our local commemoration.

I am always moved to joy on Yom haAtzmaut [Israel's Independence Day], and this year was no exception to that, either.

But I did learn something new this year. I think I now understand a little bit more than before about why these days grab at me so, why aliyah grabs at me so, and even why the rabbinate grabs at me so.

Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski talks about how people harbor a hunger to give of themselves to others, to be more than just a machine that eats and sleeps and takes care of a myriad physical functions today in order to do them again tomorrow. (Or maybe he doesn’t talk about that, and it’s just what I’ve made up, hallucinating he said it. But it rings true regardless.)

We want to be part of something greater than our own small survival, and the feeling grows as we age and realize just how inevitably doomed that small survival is. It's a feeling that inspires people to build families, to volunteer for organizations, to give philanthropically, and so on. It's what some people call a 'search for meaning.'

I feel that. I get seriously depressed when I think about a self-centered existence, my own as well as that of others. It’s so… futile.

I think that’s one of the major reasons I went for the rabbinate, to be a crucial part of families and a community, something greater than myself.

And I think that’s one of the major reasons why aliyah calls to me: the desire to be part of that ambitious enterprise, the return of our people to our home.

I know the feeling of “part of something greater” wears off pretty quickly for an oleh as he gets cut by another "part of something greater" on a long line, or deals with the bureaucracy of "something greater" in an office, and so on, but I’m on the other end right now, and from here the idea of being part of this nation Israel is very attractive.

It tugs at me on Yom haZikaron, and Yom haAtzmaut. I am jealous; I want to be part of that greater entity, with all of the pain that it brings, as well as the celebration, the crying as well as the joy and dancing.

Oh, but these days are a great antidote for my inner cynic.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Joys of Shul-Hopping

One of the big advantages of Life Outside the Rabbinate is the shul-hopping experience.

To be sure, we have a main shul, where we pay dues and do the things that members do. Nonetheless, we're taking advantage of the chance to minyan-hop within that shul, and beyond.

When I was a shul rabbi, people would describe their experiences elsewhere around town and beyond, but I couldn’t really relate: I had no experience davening in any other congregation. This was certainly true regarding Shabbos davening; we spent one Shabbos per annum in my Rebbetzin’s home community and one in my own, and that was it.

Now, in Toronto, we are the proverbial starveling at the buffet, and we’ve taken advantage of it. We’ve davened at pretty much every minyan that has a women’s section in our main shul, and we’ve also gone to almost every other shul within 30-minutes’ walk for a Shabbos morning, and we’ve also had shabbatons in other Toronto neigborhoods. Those neighborhood shuls we have not yet attended are on the list for a visit soon, since the weather is warming up; this shabbos we’re trying another one for the first time, actually.

This is an interesting experience, all that I had hoped it would be. More than just pursuing variety, we're learning; we’re seeing the way others do things, observing their methods and adding them to our own.

There is, of course, a down side to this impermanence (like sitting in someone else's seat every week and watching the people around you as they try to figure out how to say something rude in a polite way...), but for now the trade-off is worthwhile. We’re seeing yeshivish davening, chassidish davening, youth-oriented davening (our main Shabbos morning experience), choral davening, speed davening, early-morning davening, outreachy davening, and, of course, experienced-davener-rushing-to-kiddush davening.

Our adventure this past Shabbos was a perfect example of the benefits of shul-hopping: We spent Shabbos at Adas Israel in Hamilton, Ontario, where we had two particularly positive davening experiences. Kabbalat Shabbat was an outstandingly spiritid sort-of-Carlebach experience, led by a chazan with true koach (energy) and joined by a minyan to match. At the other end of Shabbos we had an absolutely beautiful Havdalah, energetic and musical and inspiring. The whole Shabbos was great, but those two parts were, for me, the definite highlight, and they added to my own inventory of ideas and experiences.

If I do return to the rabbinate one day, it will be with the richness of this experience very much in my mind. For now, I’ll take advantage of the chance to build the wealth.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Yom haAtzmaut: Israel as Motherland and Mother

I wrote the following article for YU's "Yom ha'Atzmaut To-Go," but since that publication will not be issued in print (available here at YU Torah, though), I'll circulate it here.

The theme is simple, but important to me - Rav Yissachar Techtel introduces us to a unique concept in our love for Israel, and our imperative for aliyah: Israel as a conscious Motherland.

The theme needs greater expansion, which I intend to present in a shiur at the BAYT on Sunday morning, but here is my article on the topic:

ותאמר ציון עזבני ה' וה' שכחני
And Zion said: G-d has abandoned me, and G-d has forgotten me. (1)

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 desire is in her.’ (2)

Israel as our beloved intimate
The Jew has known many reasons for his millennia-old longing for the Land of Israel; our thrice-daily recitations of “ותחזינה עינינו בשובך לציון ברחמים, Let our eyes see when You return mercifully to Zion,” have been fueled by motivations both religious and secular, personal and national. Focus of the biblical universe, cradle of our nation, throne of King David’s theocentric empire, haven from our foes, coordinate at which our mitzvot are most practical and practicable, host of our most palpable connection to the world of the spirit, terraced hills across which the plangent Divine declaration, “פה אשב כי אויתיה, Here I will dwell, for I have desired her (3), ” still echoes – Eretz Yisrael has been all of these for the genetic and spiritual heirs of Avraham and Sarah.

In the vision of Rav Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook and Rav Yissachar Techtel, though, the Land of Israel plays a more active role. Earth and stone and river and sea are anthropomorphized as limbs controlled by a humanesque consciousness, and the space formerly known as Canaan is identified as a living being, an independent spiritual entity to whom we are bonded.

Rav Kook stated this explicitly:

ארץ ישראל איננה דבר חיצוני, קנין חיצוני לאומה, רק בתור אמצעי למטרה של ההתאגדות הכללית והחזקת קיומה החמרי או אפילו הרוחני. ארץ ישראל היא חטיבה עצמותית קשורה בקשר חיים עם האומה...
The Land of Israel is not an external thing, an external prize acquired by the nation, a means toward the end of national unification and reinforcement of the nation’s physical or even spiritual survival. The Land of Israel is an independent entity, bound to the nation in the bond of life… (4)

Seen in this light, Yeshayah’s identification of Zion as a bride is part of a broader depiction of the Land of Israel as a thinking, feeling, loving and beloved intimate who longs for us to return home.

Anthropomorphic land
Description of land as a thinking, feeling entity did not originate with the Land of Israel; the midrash places this concept at the start of the Torah, in the Divine creation of the third day, when G-d charged the land to create both עץ פרי and עץ עושה פרי, fruit tree and fruit-producing tree, but it only produced the latter:

ולמה נתקללה... ר' יהודה בר' שלום אמר שעברה על הצווי שכך אמר הקב"ה תדשא הארץ וגו' מה הפרי נאכל אף העץ נאכל, והיא לא עשתה כן...
Why was the land cursed? Rabbi Yehudah ben Rabbi Shalom said: She trespassed G-d’s command. G-d said, ‘Let the land produce vegetation, etc ’ meaning that just as the fruit is edible, so the tree should be edible, and she did not do this. (5)

The concept of territorial consciousness does not end with Creation, either, and it is not limited to wicked rebellion; the sages also envisioned stones desiring to serve righteous Yaakov. The Torah records an overnight condensing of Yaakov’s protective stones from the plural (6) to the singular (7), and regarding this change the sages explained:

כתיב ויקח מאבני המקום, וכתיב ויקח את האבן! אמר רבי יצחק: מלמד שנתקבצו כל אותן אבנים למקום אחד, וכל אחת ואחת אומרת עלי יניח צדיק זה ראשו; תנא: וכולן נבלעו באחד.
It is written, ‘And he took from the stones of the site,’ and it is written, ‘And he took the stone!’
Rabbi Yitzchak explained: This teaches that all of the stones were gathered to one place, and each one said, ‘This tzaddik will rest his head on me.’ We learned: All of them became absorbed into one. (8)

Many more classic sources ascribe consciousness to a range of inanimates, from the sun and moon to the plant kingdom. Certainly, at least some of these texts are meant to provide moral instruction rather than to describe ex-cerebrum thought processes. Nonetheless, the identity of Israel as person, as thinking and feeling entity, and particularly as mother to the Jewish people, adds depth of meaning to our exile, and intensifies the imperative for our return.

The meaning of Motherland
In itself, envisioning our birthplace as Motherland is not unique to the Jewish people; numerous nations describe their homelands in maternal terms, depicting these spaces as environments which passively provide nourishment, security and familiar comfort. As Professor Rosemary Marangoly George wrote (9), “Home is a place to escape to and a place to escape from. Its importance lies in the fact that it is not equally available to all. Home is the desired place that is fought for and established as the exclusive domain of a few. ” Our concept of Israel as Mother transcends this role, though; we envision the Land of Israel as an active matriarch, actively protecting us and summoning us home.

The Torah portrays mothers as dynamic protectors, intervening and risking their own well-being on behalf of their young. From Sarah declaring that Yishmael would not inherit “with my son, with Yitzchak,(10)” to Rivkah arranging Yaakov’s blessing and accepting his curse upon herself (11), to Rachel pleading with G-d on behalf of her descendants (12), to Batsheva orchestrating her son Shlomo’s ascendancy to the throne and then arranging the downfall of his challenger Adoniyahu (13), the Jewish “mother” is more than nurturer. The mother is a lioness, acting to ensure the safety and success of her offspring.

Along the same lines, the Land of Israel is seen as an active Mother for the Jewish people, evicting unworthy tenants and invoking her own merit on behalf of her longed-for children.

Rav Yissachar Techtel (14) saw this message in the Divine promise (15) to remember Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov and “The Land”:

ומתורת משה רבינו בעצמו למדתי זאת בפ׳ בחקתי כתיב וזכרתי את בריתי יעקב ואף את בריתי יצחק ואף את בריתי אברהם אזכור והארץ אזכור... כי עיין ברש״י שם שכתב למה נמנו אחורנית כלומר כדאי הוא יעקב הקטן לכך ואם אינו כדאי הרי יצחק עמו ואם אינו כדאי הרי אברהם עמו עיי״ש ועפי״ז יש להוסיף דאף אם כולם אינם כדאים היינו באופן דתמה זכות אבות ח״ו אבל ו״הארץ אזכור״ דזכות ארץ ישראל תחלצם ממיצר... היא תגן עלינו לחלצנו ממיצר בכל עת שאנו נתונים בצרה, ר"ל.
I have learned this from the Torah of our master Moshe himself. It is written, ‘And I will remember My covenant with Yaakov, and also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also My covenant with Avraham I will remember, and the land I will remember.’… Rashi there wrote, ‘Why are they listed in reverse? As if to say: Yaakov the youngest is worthy of this, and if he is not worthy then Yitzchak is with him, and if he is not worthy then Avraham is with him.’
Based on this, one may add that even if all of them are unworthy, meaning that the merit of our ancestors has ended, still, ‘The land I will remember,’ for the merit of the Land of Israel itself will save them from trouble… She will protect us, to free us whenever we are placed in trouble, Heaven forbid.

Like Queen Esther approaching Achashverosh and offering herself on behalf of her people, the Land of Israel approaches HaShem and offers her own merit on our behalf.

Returning to our mother
This personification of Israel as mother and protector should add a dimension to our longing for aliyah, inflaming our souls and inspiring our national return to Israel with the greatest urgency. Our impulse to return is not only a selfish desire to live in the land of our ancestors, or to use the land and its products for our rituals. We are not only walking the Bible and laying claim to the once and future home of the Beit haMikdash. Rather, we are returning to our mother, to a being who longs to have her children restored.

A midrash highlights the intensity of this longing:

אמר ירמיהו כשהייתי עולה לירושלים נטלתי עיני וראיתי אשה אחת יושבת בראש ההר, לבושיה שחורים ושערה סתור צועקת מבקשת מי ינחמנה, ואני צועק ומבקש מי ינחמני, קרבתי אצלה ודברתי עמה, ואמרתי לה אם אשה את דברי עמי ואם רוח את הסתלקי מלפני, ענתה ואמרה לי, אינך מכירני, אני היא שהיו לי שבעה בנים, יצא אביהם למדינת הים, עד שאני עולה ובוכה עליו הרי שניבא ואמר לי נפל הבית על שבעה בנייך והרגם, איני יודע על מי אבכה ועל מי אסתור שעריי, עניתי ואמרתי אין אתה טובה מן אמי ציון והיא עשויה מרעית לחיות השדה, ענתה ואמרה לי, אני אמך ציון
Yirmiyah said: When I ascended to Yerushalayim, I raised my eyes and saw a woman sitting atop a mountain, wearing black clothing and with her hair undone, crying out, seeking one who would console her. I cried out as well, and sought one who would comfort me. I drew close to her and spoke with her, and told her, “If you are a woman, speak with me. If you are a spirit, leave me.” She replied, “Do you not recognize me? I am the one who had seven sons whose father left to go overseas. While I was yet crying for him, it was prophesied to me, ‘The house has collapsed upon your seven sons and killed them.’ I don’t know for whom to cry, and for whom to release my hair!” I replied and told her, “You are no greater than my mother, Zion, who has been turned into grazing for the wild animals of the field.” To which she replied and said to me, “I am your mother, Zion.” (16)

Rav Kook understood the Land of Israel as a partner of the Jewish people, and this partner suffers our exile as a bereaved mother mourns for her children. Yeshayah envisioned the day when the Land of Israel would be like a bride returned to her spouse. Rav Yissachar Techtel portrayed the emotions of that reunion by describing the reunion of a mother reunited with her husband and children in the Ghetto, concluding, “So I imagine will be the joy of our mother, the Land of Israel, at the moment when all of us will return to her.” (17)

May HaShem enable us to bring that day to reality, and to see the fulfillment of Dovid haMelech’s words:

מושיבי עקרת הבית אם הבנים שמחה הללוקה
He establishes the barren woman in the house as a joyous mother of children; Praise G-d! (18)


1. Yeshayah 49:14
2. Yeshayah 62:4
3. Tehillim 132:14
4. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook, Orot, Eretz Yisrael I
5. Midrash, Bereishit Rabbah (Vilna) 5:9
6. Bereishit 1:11-12
7. Bereishit 28:11, 18
8. Talmud, Chullin 91b; see also Midrash, Bereishit Rabbah 68:11 and Rashi to Bereishit 28:11 for some variation
9. Rosemary M. George, The Politics of Home: Postcolonial Relocations and Twentieth-Century Fiction, pg. 9
10. Bereishit 21:10
11. Bereishit 27
12. Yirmiyah 31:14
13. Melachim I 1-2
14. Rabbi Yissachar Techtel, אם הבנים שמחה, First Prologue
15. Vayyikra 26:42
16. Midrash, Psikta Rabti 26
17. Rabbi Yissachar Techtel, אם הבנים שמחה, Second Prologue
18. Tehillim 113:9

[And now for something completely different: This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Pioneer Women of Palestine

[This week's Toronto Torah is here!]

I'm delivering a shiur on Shabbos (in Hamilton) about "The Pioneer Women of Palestine" - the women's organizations and movements of 1882-1923 (hence the name "Palestine"). It's an update of a history class I developed in Allentown.

As part of the class, we'll note interesting parallels between the midrashic praise of the "Women of the Wilderness," the generation that entered Israel, and the experiences of the women who helped re-establish Jewish life in much of Israel in the First, Second and Third Aliyot. We'll look at Sejera, the Kineret Girls Training Farm, the Women's Workers Council, WIZO, Federation of Hebrew Women and more.

There is no space here (or time, for that matter) to expand on this, and as it's a Shabbos shiur there will be no recording. Nonetheless, in advance of Yom haZikaron and Yom haAtzmaut, here are some sources on the righteousness, and the love of Israel, of the Women of the Wilderness:

1. Talmud, Sotah 11b
Rav Avira taught: In the merit of the righteous women of that generation, the Jews were redeemed from Egypt. When the women went to draw water, HaShem prepared small fish in their pails, such that they drew half water and half fish. They then heated two kettles, one of water and one of fish, and brought them to their husbands in the field. They bathed and anointed their husbands, fed them and gave them water to drink, and lived with them.

2. Midrash, Pirkei d’R’ Eliezer 44
Aharon made a calculation for himself, saying, ‘If I tell the Jews to give me silver and gold then they’ll bring it immediately. Rather, I’ll tell them to give me their wives’ and children’s’ rings, and the whole idea will be nullified.’ The women heard and refused to accept the idea of giving their rings to their husbands. Rather, they said, ‘You wish to make a disgusting idol, which has no power to save you!’ They refused to listen.

3. Ibn Ezra to Shemot 38:8
They were servants of Gd, who abandoned the desires of this world. They gave their mirrors, which had been used to adjust their hair-coverings, to the Mishkan as a donation; they no longer had any need to pretty themselves. Instead, they would come to the Mishkan daily to pray, and to learn the Mitzvot.

4. Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei 9
The women said: What do we have that we can give as a gift for the Mishkan? They stood and brought their mirrors to Moshe. When Moshe saw the mirrors he reacted with outrage. He told the assembled Jews: Take sticks and break these people’s thighs! Why do we need these mirrors? Gd told Moshe: Moshe! These are the ones you disgrace? These mirrors are what created the entire nation in Egypt! Take the mirrors and make them into the copper sink and its base for the kohanim, so that the kohanim will sanctify themselves with them.

5. Talmud, Sanhedrin 109b-110a
Rav taught: On ben Pelet’s wife saved him. She said to him: What will come to you from all this? If one is the leader you will be his student, and if the other is the leader you will be his student. On replied: What can I do? I am in the plot, and I swore to join them! She told him: Sit, and I will save you. She gave him wine to drink, made him intoxicated, and put him to sleep inside the tent. She then sat by the door and untied her hair, so that anyone who came to the door saw her and left.

6. Kli Yakar to Bamidbar 13:1
Alternatively, this is why the Torah specified that the spies were men, because the sages said that he men hated the land of Israel, and they said, ‘Let us set our heads in the other direction and return to Egypt.’ The women were the ones who loved the land, and they [the daughters of Tzlafchad] said, ‘Give us a share in the land.’ Gd said to Moses: In My opinion, knowing what I see in the future, it would be better to send women, for they love the land and they won’t speak disgracefully about it. Send them for yourself, though, according to your opinion, for you believe these men are righteous.

7. Rashi to Bamidbar 26:64
The decree of death issued for the sin of the Spies was not applied to the women, for they loved the land.

8. Midrash, Sifri Bamidbar 133
Rabbi Natan said: The women’s strength was greater than that of the men. The men said, ‘Let us turn our heads and return to Egypt,’ and the women said, ‘Give us a portion among the brothers of our father.’

9. Midrash, Bamidbar Rabbah 21:10
In that generation, the women fenced in the ruptures created by the men.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Daniel Pink: How to motivate people

Daniel Pink presents an interesting TED talk here on how to motivate workers. Essentially, he is in favor of self-motivation, and having employers encourage employees to motivate themselves.

Pink's arguments are solid, and research-based. More, I appreciate the fact that he knows that his findings and ideas don’t apply to all cases and are not the only way to achieve a degree of success; I’m tired of hyperbole (tired of hearing it, not of using it, of course…).

An excerpt from CNN’s summary of the talk:

In laboratory experiments and field studies, a band of psychologists, sociologists and economists have found that many carrot-and-stick motivators -- the elements around which we build most of our businesses and many of our schools -- can be effective, but that they work in only a surprisingly narrow band of circumstances.

For enduring motivation, the science shows, a different approach is more effective. This approach draws not on our biological drive or our reward-and-punishment drive, but on what we might think of as our third drive: Our innate need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.

In particular, high performance -- especially for the complex, conceptual tasks we're increasingly doing on the job -- depends far more on intrinsic motivators than on extrinsic ones.

The discussion is particularly interesting for parenting, in the on-going challenge of finding ways to help our children take responsibility for themselves. As the CNN summary explains:

In the peculiar world of human motivation, sometimes adding two positives can give you a negative. Take the case of chores and allowances. Both are good. Chores show kids that families are built on mutual obligations and that all members need to help each other. Allowances teach kids to be responsible for, and manage, their own money.

But combining the two is a big mistake. By linking money to the completion of chores, parents turn an allowance into what I call an "if- then" reward (as in "If you do this, then you get that.") The science is very clear that "if-then" rewards, while effective in some circumstances, can trigger an avalanche of unintended consequences.

In this case, the carrot of payment sends kids a clear (and clearly wrongheaded) message: In the absence of cash, no self-respecting child would willingly set the table, empty the garbage or make her own bed.

It converts a moral and familiar obligation into just another commercial transaction -- and teaches that the only reason to do a less-than-desirable task for your family is for payment. So keep allowance and chores separate, and you just might get that trash can emptied. Even better, your kids will begin to learn the difference between principles and payoffs.

I have more to say, but time is at an unusually high premium today, so I’ll leave it at that for now.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Why Rabbis have no friends, Part 24

[Update: I noticed a burst of traffic coming to this page from Facebook today; my thanks to the linker! If anyone could tell me where the link is, I'd appreciate it.]

Picture the following opening from an actual conversation I once had with a friend, who also taught at the school my children attended:

Me: Hi!

Friend: Hi, how are you?

Me: Good, thank Gd. Do you have a minute to talk about X [a controversial communal issue]?

Friend: Sure. But I need to know: Are you calling me as my rabbi, as a board member, as a parent of my student or as Mordechai Torczyner?

And then you wonder why rabbis have no friends.

It’s a matter of Roles: The rabbi is expected to play all sorts of different roles in the community, relating to people on many levels depending on their personalities, their type of observance/affiliation, their communal involvements, their children, etc, and in consequence to pay attention to many different sets of boundaries, keeping them straight at all times. That’s hard work.

When we play Sunday morning football and I tackle you, is that because:
a) You were holding the ball,
b) You missed minyan Wednesday night,
c) You didn’t vocally support my proposal at the board meeting, or
d) All of the above?

When I call you just to say Good Shabbos on Friday, is that because:
a) I like you and want to be in touch,
b) I plan on soliciting a serious contribution for the Youth program,
c) I know something you don’t yet know about how your children are doing in school, or
d) All of the above?

And so on.

The potential mindgames, and the potential political landmines, are very real. The result is that having friends is very difficult, because there are no relationships that are only about friendship; all of them have multiple roles and associated overtones. Do you really want to go about your day talking to people, visiting them, teaching them, or interacting socially with them, while having to maintain in the back of your mind an awareness of what role you are filling at the moment, and what boundaries you need to observe?

I don’t, and I didn’t. In my rabbinate I dealt with everyone as friend, because that was the relationship I wanted, but I must admit that this was not always the wisest approach.

Other rabbis solve the problem by making no friends locally, and finding friendship outside the community, such as with rabbinic colleagues – or blog readers, I suppose.

And others never really figure out how to square the circle, and it can be tough on them.

So go be friendly to your rabbi – but make sure to clarify how and why you are doing so…

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Dangerous Doppelgangers

Has this ever happened to you?

Standing on line at the supermarket checkout, davening next to someone in shul, sitting next to someone at a meeting, you notice that the person beside you bears a strong resemblance to someone you know, and like. Instinctively, you feel and act more friendly to him than might be expected, perhaps drawing a suspicious look.

Alternatively, she looks like someone with whom you’ve had a run-in, and you start to shy away, perhaps drawing nervous glances.

This happens to me all the time. One person I met a few months ago resembles a cousin of mine. Another looks like the principal at a school in a community in which I once lived. A third matches a regular from one of my shiurim in Allentown, and a fourth strongly resembles a boy I taught for his bar mitzvah. Yet another looks like my children’s former pediatrician, and another like a person who gave me an incredibly hard time in my shul – a dozen years ago.

The result: I meet people and instantly feel friendly or cold, paternal or jokey or turned-off or trusting, based not on any experience with them but on experience with people whom they resemble.

I know it’s happening, I l know my reaction is just the product of a resemblance, but I feel it anyway.

Where does this come from?

1. Part of it is from the general disorientation of being uprooted from a small-to-mid-sized city where I lived for eight years, to a megalopolis with a ton of people I’ve never met. Since moving to Toronto in August, I’ve meet many hundreds of people, in all parts of the city. I see people in one place, then, weeks or months later, run into them in a completely different part of the city. I meet someone at Shopper’s Drug Mart, then in shul, then at a shiur, then at a shiva house… it’s all very disorienting, and remembering people’s names and associations and roles is occasionally a real challenge.

2. Part of it is from the mind’s natural urge to categorize: We make intuitive leaps in order to simplify our input, grouping people and interactions in different ways – and some of those leaps are just wrong.

3. And part of it is that physiognomy – the practice of reading people’s character from their appearance – is real. Posture, facial expression, alertness and more are often a product of personality, and so we tend to intuit, based on experience, that people who look alike will also have similar personalities.

And so I find myself asking myself, not infrequently (and agrammatically): Who do you think you’re talking to?


Monday, April 12, 2010

Dumb Israeli smokers, Smart Israeli rats, and more Science News

[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here]

I'm having a very busy few days as the kollel resumes programming and as my counterparts at various shuls and organizations return to normal business.

I'm also into "Do it Yourself" season - I've recently dismantled and cleaned my car brakes, re-hinged a door, washed my entire stock of white shirts by hand (long story), re-potted a few plants and replaced all of the buttons on my davening jacket.

Bottom line: I'm short of time to write. Nonetheless, here’s a round-up of some recent scientific stories I have found interesting:

Smoking Is Dumb: Young Men Who Smoke Have Lower IQs, Study Finds
A study led by Prof. Mark Weiser of Tel Aviv University's Department of Psychiatry and the Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer Hospital has determined that young men who smoke are likely to have lower IQs than their non-smoking peers. Tracking 18- to 21-year-old men enlisted in the Israeli army in the largest ever study of its kind, he has been able to demonstrate an important connection between the number of cigarettes young males smoke and their IQ.
The average IQ for a non-smoker was about 101, while the smokers' average was more than seven IQ points lower at about 94, the study determined. The IQs of young men who smoked more than a pack a day were lower still, at about 90. An IQ score in a healthy population of such young men, with no mental disorders, falls within the range of 84 to 116.

New, Inexpensive Way to Predict Alzheimer's Disease
Your brain's capacity for information is a reliable predictor of Alzheimer's disease and can be cheaply and easily tested, according to scientists.
"We have developed a low-cost behavioral assessment that can clue someone in to Alzheimer's disease at its earliest stage," said Michael Wenger, associate professor of psychology, Penn State. "By examining (information) processing capacity, we can detect changes in the progression of mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

Simple Test Can Detect Signs of Suicidal Thoughts in People Taking Antidepressants
While antidepressant medications have proven to be beneficial in helping people overcome major depression, it has long been known that a small subset of individuals taking these drugs can actually experience a worsening of mood, and even thoughts of suicide. No clinical test currently exists to make this determination, and only time -- usually weeks -- can tell before a psychiatrist knows whether a patient is getting better or worse.
Now, UCLA researchers have developed a non-invasive biomarker, or indicator, that may serve as a type of early warning system.
Reporting in the April edition of the peer-reviewed journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, Aimee Hunter, an assistant research psychologist in the UCLA Department of Psychiatry, and colleagues report that by using quantitative electroencephalographic (QEEG), a non-invasive measurement of electrical activity in the brain, they were able to observe a sharp reduction of activity in a specific brain region in individuals who proved susceptible to thoughts of suicide -- within 48 hours of the start of treatment.

Inkjet-like device "prints" cells right over burns
Inspired by a standard office inkjet printer, U.S. researchers have rigged up a device that can spray skin cells directly onto burn victims, quickly protecting and healing their wounds as an alternative to skin grafts.
They have mounted the device, which has so far only been tested on mice, in a frame that can be wheeled over a patient in a hospital bed, they reported Wednesday.
A laser can take a reading of the wound's size and shape so that a layer of healing skin cells can be precisely applied, said the team at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
"We literally print the cells directly onto the wound," said student Kyle Binder, who helped design the device. "We can put specific cells where they need to go."

And one more:
Why Israeli Rodents Are More Cautious Than Jordanian Ones
Is a border line simply a virtual line appearing on the map? If so, why is it that Israeli rodents are more cautious than Jordanian rodents? Why is it that there are more ant lions in Israel than in Jordan? And how come there are more reptile species in Jordan than in Israel? A series of new studies at the University of Haifa's Department of Environmental and Evolutionary Biology and the University of Haifa-Oranim's Faculty of Sciences and Science Education are exploring the answers.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan? Or is she too hard on terror?

With Justice Stevens retiring, people are talking about Solicitor General Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court, again (see 2004 and 2009).

Some have suggested that President Obama would not nominate Ms. Kagan because she is Jewish. The Harvard Crimson writes:

Kagan’s religious affiliation may also impede her nomination. Justice Stevens is the Court’s only Protestant, and if Kagan, who is Jewish, were appointed, the court would be composed of six Catholics and three Jews.
According to Tushnet, that issue “has not quite surfaced yet,” but there have been some indications that it could factor into Obama’s decision.

Picking up on the same point, NBC Chicago points out Diane Wood might be a more likely candidate, for her Protestancy:

Also, in a quirk of history, Stevens is the lone remaining Protestant on the Supreme Court. (A hundred years ago, all the judges were Protestant.) Wood could fill in for him there, too: she lives in the suburbs, plays oboe in the North Shore Chamber Orchestra and is on her third husband.
It’s hard to get much WASPier than that.

But I see another reason why Kagan might not be nominated: Her defense of a law prohibiting aid for Hizballah, as recorded in the New York Times:

Solicitor General Elena Kagan defended the law at issue in the case, which bars providing material support to terrorist organizations, as “a vital weapon in this nation’s continuing struggle against international terrorism.”
Even seemingly benign help is prohibited, Ms. Kagan said.
“Hezbollah builds bombs,” she said of the militant Islamic group. “Hezbollah also builds homes. What Congress decided was when you help Hezbollah build homes, you are also helping Hezbollah build bombs. That’s the entire theory behind the statute.”

I can see President Obama overlooking Ms. Kagan's Jewish roots, or even favoring them as a way to balance his horrible press over Israel ("Some of my best friends are Jewish..."). But a justice who openly declares that Hizballah builds bombs? No way this candidate makes it on to that man's court.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Kosher Food Producers: Legal Standards or Ethical Standards?

I am a member of the RCA committee that generated ethical guidelines for Kosher Food Certification last year. A major component of our document required that kosher certification agencies verify that food producers have a clear plan for ensuring adherence to the law.

Professor Moses Pava criticized the guidelines in The Forward before Pesach, arguing that we should have demanded that all kosher food producers implement sophisticated ethical codes rather than simply comply with the law.

Pava has a point, one we debated as long as we could before we had to come to a conclusion, but his recommendation is an abstract, ivory tower position, ignoring the realities of both the demands of the law and the nature of the average kosher food producer.

Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, committee chair, has now published an Op-Ed in this week's Forward explaining the problem. You can read the whole article at The Forward site, but here is a key excerpt addressing Pava's criticism [boldface mine]:

Our task force extensively debated what level of conduct to demand of producers. Ultimately, we decided on lawful conduct for two main reasons.

The objective of our initiative throughout was to insist on adequate standards, not to promote law enforcement per se. Yet as we examined the specific standards we considered vital — truth in labeling, worker safety, animal welfare, etc. — we repeatedly determined that in advanced countries with extensive legislation and regulation in areas of concern to us, existing legal requirements set an adequate bar for ethical conduct. We often raised the question of how to proceed in less developed countries that impose much less demanding standards, but decided that release of the guidelines should not be held up pending resolution of this knotty question.

The second reason for the law-abiding conduct standard was transparency. The most important aspect of the RCA initiative is not the specific demands it contains but rather its creation of a practical mechanism for aligning expectations among kosher consumers, supervisors and producers — expectations that had been grossly transgressed in the scandals referred to by Pava. Aligning expectations requires, above all, requirements that are clear and well understood. By far the most transparent, consistent and well-publicized standard is the law. Our guidelines demand adequate internal mechanisms to enforce legal requirements and emphasize that kosher supervision considers compliance a prerequisite for certification.

Pava’s main proposal is to require all kosher food producers to develop codes of ethics that go beyond the requirements of the law. This proposal has many disadvantages. While ethics codes and programs can be a useful tool for improving ethical standards, they are also subject to many limitations. My position on ethics programs, based on current research and my own experience in the field, is as follows: In order to be successful, ethics programs demand careful design to suit an organization’s unique character, a detailed implementation mechanism and a sustained commitment from employees at all levels. Consequently, implementing a meaningful code of ethics is not practical for most small organizations.

Pava states: “Almost all major American and international corporations now have such statements.” But the RCA guidelines reflect our awareness that much of the kashrut industry consists of small firms and family businesses, not major corporations. By contrast, the requirements of the law are equally appropriate and applicable to both tiny local kosher pizza stores and huge multinational corporations.

An ineffective ethics program is worse than none, because it reinforces norms of cynicism and hypocrisy.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Israel's New Chad Gadya - in translation

Here's the video, from LATMA:

The agrammatic pseudo-Aramaic makes translation a little choppy, but here goes:

One house, one house, that my father built for me for two zuz

Then came the tattler who photographed the house that my father built for me for two zuz

Then came the newspaper [Haaretz] who wrote that the tattler photographed the house that my father built for me for two zuz

Then came Bibi who was pressured by the newspaper who wrote that the tattler photographed the house that my father built for me for two zuz

Then came Obama who struck Bibi who was pressured by the newspaper who wrote that the tattler photographed the house that my father built for me for two zuz

Then came the foolish one [Tzipi Livni] who rejoiced that Obama struck Bibi who was pressured by the newspaper who wrote that the tattler photographed the house that my father built for me for two zuz

Then came the ben kalba [definition here for those who need it] [Ahmadinejad] who rejoiced that the foolish one rejoiced that Obama struck Bibi who was pressured by the newspaper who wrote that the tattler photographed the house that my father built for me for two zuz

Then came the nuclear bomb built by the ben kalba who rejoiced that the foolish one rejoiced that Obama struck Bibi who was pressured by the newspaper who wrote that the tattler photographed the house that my father built for me for two zuz

Then came the Air Force and bombed the bomb built by the ben kalba who rejoiced that the foolish one rejoiced that Obama struck Bibi who was pressured by the newspaper who wrote that the tattler photographed the house that my father built for me for two zuz

Then came the tattler and cried to the UN which condemned the air force that bombed the bomb built by the ben kalba who rejoiced that the foolish one rejoiced that Obama struck Bibi who was pressured by the newspaper who wrote that the tattler photographed the house – and what is the conclusion?

A powerful kick to the UN and to the tattler and to the ben kalba and to Obama and to the foolish one and to the newspaper who have still not learned anything and make a tumult and desperately want to trigger an Intifada, and make the whole world jump, because of the one house my father built for me for two zuz.

Do Not Touch

More about Pesach in the next few days, I hope, but a little about this morning for now.

Making our post-Pesach way back to Toronto, we stopped off in a small town for minyan. I had never been in this particular community, but I knew it had economic trouble, a few small, struggling shuls, and a serious split in the observant community between its more yeshivish members and its less-learned contingent.

As I drove through the town to the yeshivish shul (they had the later minyan) this morning, the reality of the city’s economic trouble was clear; the state of the houses, the people on the streets, made the town’s upbeat welcoming slogan look depressingly silly. But more depressing was the minyan itself; no one smiled, no one welcomed, it was just grim. And monochrome. And sparse.

The scene called to mind the sad state of so many Jewish communities outside of Israel – all of them, really. We possess so little in the way of resources, there are so many reasons to think that the future outside Israel is grim-to-bleak, and yet little population pockets persist in battling to claim their turf from the dwindling whole.

To me, this is an accurate depiction of the politics of the Jewish world whether we’re talking about small towns or big cities, populations of 5000 Jews or 500,000 Jews. We are so impoverished on so many levels, and facing such hurdles to even continue existing, how can people waste time and resources lording it over what little they have, hanging on to monopolize tiny institutions? It reminds me of the דל גאה, the arrogant pauper, whom the gemara (Pesachim 113b) labels, “intolerable.”

Part of it, I suppose, is the need of the pauper to mark his territory and bark at others as a way of establishing/retaining some sort of pathetic pride for himself. But it’s absurd, and it’s self-destructive. Is this really the way to survival, or is it a sort of communal euthanasia?

As minyan concluded, I thought perhaps I was being too judgmental. Maybe I had been prejudiced by the things I had heard about the community. Could be that the morning’s aura was just a post-Pesach letdown. I could have been all wrong, right?

Then I reached into the sefarim shelf in my row to withdraw a Mishneh Berurah I saw there, to check something before leaving. I picked up the book, only to see someone’s name taped to it, and below that, in large capital letters, DO NOT TOUCH. I dropped it back in the row, scalded by the heat coming off those letters. Then I just had to pick it back up, to see for myself whether it said ‘Please’ – so I did it with a shinui, using the back of my hand, as though that would be any less a violation of the presumptive owner’s instructions – and No, there was no ‘Please.’

Just someone protecting his turf. Indeed.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

And a child shall lead them - or not?

[This week's Pesach Haveil Havalim is here]

I’m conflicted about assigning youths to lead davening and to lein certain Torah readings in shul. I can see the sides all too well; I don’t know that I have a conclusion, other than the fact that when I ran the shul I always let them fill most roles.

Here are some of the arguments I see:

1. The role of leading davening, particularly in moments of real supplication or special emotional freight, should be assigned to people who know what they are doing, and who are suited for the task.

I know what you're thinking - or, at least, what I'm thinking: There you go, Torczyner, off on another rant. But, really: How can a teenager express the world-weary soul-searching of a Kohelet, how can a yeshiva boy know the anxious heart that cries when praying for rain at Geshem, how can a glib kid sing Shir haShirim without having experienced the depth of love and loss that drives the narrative?

More: How can a grandparent, a cancer patient, a woman dealing with a painful divorce, feel that this child is her representative?

We have halachic precedent for limiting certain roles to leaders, to people with family; perhaps we should apply the principle to a greater set of roles?

2. Does a youngster have the maturity to know and feel what it means to lead a community, and to be responsible, at least in part, for the success of their prayers?

Which is greater in the manchild's mind, his own on-stage role or his obligation to appeal to Gd on behalf of the community? "Look, Ma!" or "I hit the note!" is not what I want my baal musaf to be thinking. [Yes, I'm being a curmudgeon. And, yes, this goes back to my general mistrust of chazanim. Sorry.]

3. To go back the other way, though: We are obligated to train our children and young adults for leadership positions! Don’t we risk souring them if we render these roles off-limits until some undetermined date when they have seen enough of life, suffered enough that we feel they understand? "Sure, kid, you can do that when you're thirty."

4. And to provide another argument in favor: It's not as though our adults are such princes. Most younger people harbor greater innocence, having experienced less but also having sinned less. The yeshiva boy’s sins tend to be more personal, more confined to a certain sphere, and less publicly known, and he is less likely to have offended the community he leads. Perhaps we are better off having the young lead.

5. And another reason not to regulate these roles: Observant Judaism is already tiresomely heirarchical, and we have enough limitations on who can do what, where, and when. Should we create another set of barriers and rules, declaring still more honors off-limits – and with a fairly arbitary system of managing these honors?

I can see it now: "Ritual committee, here you go: Design a whole new playbook of who gets to lain Maftir Yonah, the Tochachah, the death of Moshe, Miriam's tzaraat... and while you're at it, go through the shul membership list and check off people who are qualified to daven maariv each night."

I am torn. I lean toward the latter three points, especially #5, but I’m really not sure.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Did you see My Central Park?

I found two silver hairs in my beard a couple of weeks ago, a discovery which has unnerved me considerably. Certainly, I’ve been gaining Reed Richards silver at the temples for a year or more, but beard silver – all right, beard gray – seems somehow older to me. And I can’t write these hairs off to my vitiligo, either. I feel like a disqualified parah adumah.

I informed my family on my last birthday that I have decided to start subtracting years rather than adding them, but my body seems to have missed the memo.

On the whole, I shouldn’t complain. Thank Gd a million million times over, I can lift more weight now than at any time since college and I carry my kids all over the place, I am free of chronic illness, I have no bald spot and my hairline hasn’t receded (much). All the same, I can feel the age coming on.

And going to Central Park yesterday added to that feeling, when I realized that despite going to high school in Manhattan, and dorming in Manhattan for college and semichah, I’d almost never been to Central Park. I saw Belvedere Castle and the Great Lawn for the first time yesterday. It was great to see it through my children’s eyes, but it also made me ponder the things I’ve been missing – and what else I risk missing, as time flies and the "silver" accumulates.

We lived in Rhode Island for four years, and other than two trips to Plymouth, one trip through New Hampshire and Vermont and frequent trips to Conimicut and to a small Massachusetts town the name of which I can’t remember, we didn’t really do any sight-seeing. This also despite the fact that my Rebbetzin commuted almost daily to Cambridge for two of those years.

We lived in eastern Pennslyvania for eight years, and other than a trip with my kids to the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, a trip to a craft fair in Effort, a trip to Bushkill Falls and one trip to Hershey, again, we didn’t really travel. Not to Jim Thorpe, not to the local caves, not to Philadelphia, not anywhere.

And now we’re in Toronto, in a country that prides itself for its outdoors, and again we have no plan to actually see anything.

Why? Because I consistently create a work schedule that doesn’t allow for trips, which is all the more true now that I am on a kollel schedule. And because I get antsy when I'm actually travelling. And because I feel guilty for stepping out.

But from a religious perspective, my trip to Central Park reminded me of the line attributed to Rabbiner Samson Raphael Hirsch, that Gd will ask us one day, “Did you see My Alps?” And from a secular perspective, I watch the silver grow and spread and I don’t want to miss things because of the assumption that they will always be there for me, since, clearly, they won’t.

Time to start making a list of things to see in Canada…

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Personalize your auto-reply message

Back from the most walking-intensive day I've had in some time. We took the kids to Central Park, which was filled with enough Pesach tourists for a variation of Will Smith's Men in Black improvisation: "It just be rainin' Jewish people in New York!". We worked our way from the southern entrance up to the Great Lawn, with lots of rock-climbing, etc. along the way. I have more to post about this, and possibly will tonight or tomorrow.

Returning home, I found a bunch of messages from people who appreciated my email auto-reply.

To explain: I've always disliked cold auto-reply messages - "I will be out of the office from X to Y, if you need to reach me, etc." When I was a shul rabbi, I had a pretty austere auto-reply, and I included lots of clutter, too - "For minyan times, for mikvah appointments, for hospitality in the area, for emergencies..." But I'm rebelling now. Granted that I have a [cough] image to uphold within my public position, there still must be ways to be a human being.

So this time I decided to go with something a little more friendly, but still sober enough that I don't appear to actually have a sense of humor:


Thanks for your email.

Sorry to be impersonal, but this is an automatic reply sent by a machine that cannot tell the difference between Spam, listserv messages, shailos and personal messages. I have not read your email yet.

I expect to be travelling from Sunday March 28 through Thursday April 8. I should have email access, but since I will be untethered from my Blackberry (!), my reading and replies may not be rapid. Rest assured, I do feel guilty for that. But let's move on.

If this is an emergency, please log off and phone 911 (or check out a neat on-line 911 system that was never implemented, here). To reach me immediately, please call me at XXX-XXX-XXXX.

Have a great day,

And now to you: What would you do to personalize your auto-reply, without shocking innocent people who just want to communicate with the Rosh Kollel shli"ta?