Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ending and then Beginning

I don't celebrate New Year's Day as a religious holiday, but something in me registers a substantive, positive change when the year flips over and we start writing 12 instead of 11. It's not that different from the feeling that comes with a birthday, just another day and yet so loaded with meaning. It's the end of the old immediately followed by the start of the new.

Starting anew immediately reminds me of a practice of my second grade ("grade two" in Canadian) rebbe, Rabbi Hyman ז"ל. Thanks to him, I am allergic to finishing a parshah, a perek of gemara, a sefer, without starting a new one. Whenever we made one of those siyyumim (celebrations of completion) that second graders perform from time to time, he had us read the first line from whatever book we were starting next. It made enough of an impression that I still do it, 30 years later.

I used to annoy my Daf Yomi crew with the practice, too; we would finish a masechta, and they wouldn't have the new volume with them and the day's Daf was concluded, but I would insist on starting the first mishnah in the new volume.

Theoretically, there is no reason to do this for the end of some specific section; we could add another line at every pause from our learning, whether at the end of a book or mid-page. One could even argue that it's a negative practice, keeping us from spending time thinking about what we have just completed. But from a psychological standpoint, it's important to do this specifically when we complete something, so that we don’t see our study as complete, but as leading to something new.

The same could be said for starting new ventures in life whenever an old one is complete, having nothing to do with study. [This has particular value when the 'completion of the old' is associated with grief and loss, but that's a discussion for another time.]

The model for Rabbi Hyman's practice might be Simchas Torah, when we start the Torah with Bereishis immediately after we finish the Torah with v'Zos haBerachah, but just the other day I came across another, earlier basis for the practice:

The gemara (Avodah Zarah 19a) records a story involving two sages, Rabbi Shimon bar Rebbe and Levi, who were studying from the same scroll. They finished learning one book, and then they wished to start a new one. The story is only recorded in the Talmud because of their debate as to what they should learn next; the fact that they had just finished a text is not directly relevant and doesn't seem to belong, and so Rav Shmuel Eideles (Maharsha) comments:

מדנקט לה בכי האי גוונא דסליק ספרא נראה דאשמעינן שבשעה שמסיימין ספר אחד יש להתחיל ספר האחר
From the fact that it brought the story in this manner, mentioning that they had just finished a book, it appears that they were teaching us that when we conclude one book we should begin another book.

So there's a solid source. May your every completion – secular year or individual day or study session – lead directly into a new beginning.

PS - The Maharsha adds a note:
כמו שאנו עושים בשמחת תורה ע"פ המדרש מפני קטרוג השטן
This is like our practice on Simchas Torah, based on a midrash of preventing the Satan's accusation.

I don't know where this midrash cited by the Maharsha appears, but Rav Ovadia does quote it to explain why there is no kaddish between completion of the Torah and the start of Bereishis on Simchas Torah (Yabia Omer 4:Orach Chaim 22).

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Beit Shemesh: Of Sikrikim and Givonim

[I received what could be a critical alert this morning from the ADL, regarding a man named Danny Lee Warner. It is most unusual for them to send an alert specifying a name and a location, as they did with this one. The JCRC of New York has put the alert on-line; click here to see it.]

In the Bible: The Givoni tribe tricked Joshua into a pact of non-aggression when the Jews first entered Canaan. Despite the fraud, the Jews committed to honor their agreement, and supported the Givonim by giving them a role within the Jewish community.

The book of Shemuel I (chapter 21) records that Gd punished the Jews with a famine because King Shaul later attacked the tribe of Givonim. [The commentators are perplexed, for such an attack does not appear in Tanach; some suggest this refers to his eradication of the city of Nov, which eliminated their livelihood.] The Givonim demanded a horrific price for their satisfaction: The death of seven members of King Shaul's family.

As explained in Yevamot 79a, King David reacted by declaring that no Jew could marry a member of this Givoni tribe; they could not possibly be Jewish, because they lacked the traits of bashfulness, mercy and kindness. Expanding upon this, the Rambam wrote in his work of law, Mishneh Torah (Hilchos Issurei Biah 19:17):

כל מי שיש בו עזות פנים או אכזריות ושונא את הבריות ואינו גומל להם חסד חוששין לו ביותר שמא גבעוני הוא, שסימני ישראל האומה הקדושה ביישנין רחמנים וגומלי חסדים, ובגבעונים הוא אומר והגבעונים לא מבני ישראל המה לפי שהעיזו פניהם ולא נתפייסו ולא רחמו על בני שאול ולא גמלו לישראל חסד למחול לבני מלכם והם עשו עמהם חסד והחיום בתחלה
Regarding anyone who is boldfaced or cruel or who hates Gd's creatures and does not perform kindness to them: We are exceptionally concerned that this person might be a Givoni, for the signs of Israel, the holy nation, is that they are bashful, merciful and providers of kindness. Regarding the Givonim it is written, 'The Givonim were not of the children of Israel,' because they were boldfaced, and they were not appeased, and they did not have mercy upon Shaul's family, and they did not perform kindness to Israel to forgive their royal family even though the Jews had [earlier] performed kindness for them, giving them life.

The Shulchan Aruch quotes this as law in Even haEzer 2:2-
מי שיש בו עזות פנים ואכזריות ושונא את הבריות ואינו גומל להם חסד, חוששים לו ביותר שמא גבעוני הוא.
Regarding anyone who is boldfaced and cruel and who hates Gd's creatures and does not perform kindness to them: We are exceptionally concerned that this person might be a Givoni.

Given the above, I have to wonder: How could anyone marry one of Beit Shemesh's self-styled Sikrikim, who - in an organized, premeditated fashion - brutalize children verbally and physically in an attempt to intimidate them and drive them out?

I know their justifications, but the Givonim had a justification, too, and it was a lot stronger than that of the Sikrikim. Claiming the banner of Torah does not hide עזות פנים (boldfaced conduct), does not mitigate אכזריות (cruelty) and does not substitute for חסד (kindness). It appears to me that we have here a modern version of חוששין לו ביותר שמא גבעוני הוא.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Mayor Corey Booker on Jewish Education

First, an interesting question from this morning: On Monday, I went to shul with one of my children. Davening was long (Rosh Chodesh and Chanukah, after all!) and I surprised him afterward with a trip to a local bakery for a jelly doughnut.

This morning - again Chanukah and Rosh Chodesh - I found all of my children dressed and ready to go to shul, bright and early. [Today is Boxing Day nidcheh, so davening wasn't that early] Obviously, a repeat trip to the bakery was expected.

So - Go or No Go? Confirm them in the idea that service of Gd brings quick earthly rewards? Or show them that a mitzvah has value in itself?

I needed about 3 seconds to debate that one; I took them to the bakery. What would you do?

But on to the main subject of this post:

I received a link yesterday to video of Newark's Mayor Corey Booker, speaking at a fundraiser for the Jewish Day School of the Lehigh Valley, the community day school in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The school educates, and draws support from, the gamut of the Jewish spectrum, with a message that tries to reach everyone.

Mayor Booker's speech was perfect; watch it below. [Note: Part II is even better than Part I; that's where he gets into his 'dvar torah'.] I wish every Jewish parent could watch it. He laid out simple but compelling reasons why a Jewish community must support its Jewish school.

Often, Jews draw inspiration from praise that comes from outside the Jewish community; we love to cite Mark Twain on the Eternal Jew, for example. Having a non-Jew recognize value in our community and ideals offers validation. Certainly, that's part of what I value in Mayor Booker's words - but I am more impressed by the Torah content itself.

Part I:

Part II:

Monday, December 26, 2011

Hiddur vs. Kallos

I published the following column in the Canadian Jewish News last week, but since they don't run it on-line, I'm including it here. Some of the ideas I used in a Chanukah article in YU's To Go from 5771 are involved here, but this is more sophisticated. Neal Stephenson fans (Anathem, specifically) may particularly like it:

My elementary school teachers explained Hellenic culture by telling our class that Greeks worshipped the beautiful body. Underscoring this point by noting that ancient Olympic competitors performed without clothing, these teachers succeeded in conveying an indelible image, but they oversimplified the role of Beauty in the original Chanukah and its celebrations today.

Greek culture honoured the body's physical beauty, but their emphasis was upon a broader conception of Beauty, or Kallos. Plato envisioned an abstract universe in which the characteristics we express as adjectives exist as nouns – a perfect Triangle, a perfect Blue, and a perfect Beauty, as independent entities.

Within that abstract Platonic universe, Kallos occupies a place of honour, and so every beautiful thing in our world is automatically admired as a reflection of that higher Kallos, even in the absence of any other redeeming characteristic. To cite from Plato's Phaedrus (Jowett translation), the most elevated person who observes beauty in our world "is transported with the recollection of the true beauty… he is like a bird fluttering and looking upward and careless of the world below; and he is therefore thought to be mad." And as Plato wrote in his Symposium (Nehamas translation), "Only in the contemplation of beauty is human life worth living."

This ideal was rejected by the Maccabees, for Jewish tradition spurns the idea that Beauty has inherent value. Beauty is neither good nor evil; it is only a characteristic of a good or evil entity. As Proverbs 31:30 states, "Charm is false and beauty is empty"; we don't admire Beauty for its own value.

However, Jewish tradition does teach that the act of Beautification, Hiddur in Hebrew, demonstrates devotion; as the Sages translated the Jews' song of praise at the Red Sea (Exodus 15:2), "This is my G-d, and I will beautify Him." Therefore, the same Maccabees who rejected Kallos pursued Hiddur in establishing the restored Temple's Menorah. The Talmud (Menachot 28b) teaches, "The branches of their Menorah were iron rods, and the Hasmoneans coated them with tin. When they became wealthier, they made the branches of silver. When they became still wealthier, they made the branches of gold."

We follow in the footsteps of the Maccabees and employ Hiddur on Chanukah, too. The Talmud records a baseline practice of lighting one flame per household on each night of Chanukah, but Jews all over the world follow the Talmud's highest "mehadrin" practice of lighting multiple flames, based on the number of Chanukah nights that have passed. As the 13th century commentary Tosafot explains, this practice is called mehadrin from the word Hiddur, signifying that it beautifies the mitzvah; we practice Hiddur in order to glorify our Judaism.

Beyond the religious message, Hiddur of a mitzvah also offers great practical value. I wish for my children to value the religious decisions I have made, but if my child sees rote observance, begrudging fulfillment of obligations and bottom-line satisfaction of expectations, she may find that model less than compelling. On the other hand, if our children will see that a mitzvah is a thing worthy of Hiddur, then perhaps they will desire to own it themselves. With their beautified Menorah, the Maccabees encouraged us to demonstrate, for ourselves and for our children, that mitzvot are worthy of Hiddur.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Class: Laws of Comedy

In our Shabbos afternoon class in Gemara Avodah Zarah, we've spent a few weeks discussing Avodah Zarah 18's focus on ליצנות, leitzanut. This term is often rendered as 'scorning' or 'mocking', but the gemara also uses it to refer to attending theatres and circuses and comedy performances and gladiator matches, and perhaps even to hunting for sport. All along, the commentators emphasize the frivolous character of the activity.

Whatever the term means, the gemara makes clear that leitzanut is very, very bad - the Divine punishments include physical suffering, Gehennom, and global destruction.

So what, exactly, is leitzanut, and why is it so bad? After all, the gemara is filled with humor - from puns to slapstick - and it recommends opening a shiur with humor! In today's class we developed two interlocking ideas:
(1) Arrogantly mocking others' ideas or personalities, and
(2) Pursuing empty activities.

We talked about what concerned the sages, and its application to our forms of entertainment.

Here's the source sheet we used; credit goes to this page for leading me to some of these sources:
Key sources from Mishlei
1. Mishlei 9:8
אל תוכח לץ פן ישנאך הוכח לחכם ויאהבך
Do not rebuke a letz, lest he hate you; rebuke a wise person and he will love you.

2. Mishlei 9:12
אם חכמת חכמת לך ואם לצת לבדך תשא
If you gained wisdom, you gained wisdom for yourself. If latzta, you bear that alone.

3. Mishlei 21:24
זד יהיר לץ שמו עושה בעברת זדון
The zeid, arrogant man is named Letz, the one who acts with the anger of zadon.

Putting down others
4. Rabbeinu Yonah, Shaarei Teshuvah III 174
מבלי היות לו תועלת בדבר הוא גורם נזק עצום לחבריו אשר יבאיש את ריחם בעיני האדם, וזה תכלית הזדון יותר מן הגוזל והחומס שעושה להרבות לו ממון, וגם הוא יהיר כי השפל והנכנע כאשר יכיר מגרעת עצמו ומומיו לא יתלוצץ על בני אדם.
Without any personal gain in the matter, he causes great harm to people by denigrating them before others' eyes. This is what makes zadon worse than theft or banditry, which is done to increase one's wealth. Such a person is also arrogant, for one who is humble and recognizes his own deficiencies and blemishes and does not mock other people.

5. Rabbeinu Yonah, Shaarei Teshuvah III 176
מי שלועג תמיד לדברים ולפעולות... הביאוהו למדתו הרעה היותו חכם בעיניו... וכל כך משלה בו המדה הזאת עד שיתלוצץ לדעת זולתו, והיא המדה שאין לה תקוה
One who perpetually mocks things and activities… is brought to this bad trait by being wise in his own eyes… And this trait so rules over him that he mocks the views of others. This is a hopeless trait.

6. Rabbeinu Yonah, Shaarei Teshuvah III 177*
המתלוצץ בדבר שפתים על המעשים והדברים, לא שיבוז להם בלבו אך מדרך השמחים ללא דבר וחק השחוק, ופעמים שגורם לזה משתה היין והשכרות
One who verbally mocks deeds or things, not because he personally scorns them but because this is the way of people who are happy for no reason, and it is a joking practice. Sometimes wine and intoxication causes this.

7. R' Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Mesilat Yesharim Perek 5
כמו המגן המשוח בשמן אשר ישמיט ויפיל מעליו החצים ומשליכם לארץ ולא יניח אותם שיגיעו אל גוף האדם כן הלצון בפני התוכחה...
Like a shield anointed with oil, which shunts and staves off arrows, casting them to the ground, so they don't reach the person's body. So is latzon before rebuke…

8. Malbim to Mishlei 21:24
הזד הוא החולק על חקי החכמה בזדון, ומתוכח נגד חקי החכמה והאמונה, מכחיש בהשגחה ובשכר ועונש ועושה עבירות ביד רמה, וכ"ז שאינו יהיר אינו לץ עדיין, כי מתוכח בטענות וראיות לא בליצנות, ואם ינצחוהו ישתוק, אבל אם הוא יהיר אז לא יחוש לטעמים וראיות כלל, רק מתלוצץ על החכמים והמאמינים
The zeid contradicts the laws of wisdom with zadon, battling the laws of wisdom and faith, denying Divine supervision and reward and punishment, and transgressing with an upraised arm, but as long as he is not arrogant he is not a letz, for he battles with claims and proofs rather than leitzanut. If he is defeated, he is silent. One who is arrogant, though, is not concerned for reasons and proofs at all; he only scorns sages and believers.

9. R' Yitzchak Hutner, Pachad Yitzchak Purim, ענין א'
שמו של הכוח הזה המתפרץ בחזקה להפקיע את עצמו מידיה של החשיבות הוא "ליצנות". מדת הליצנות העצמית, כפי שהיא נמצאת בנפש בשרשה, ענינה הוא למצוא את הפרצה בכל בנין של חשיבות על מנת לסתור את הבנין מתוכה של פרצה זו.
The name of this force which bursts forth with strength to free itself from the hands of Importance is leitzanut. The essence of leitzanut, as it is found in the root of a soul, is to find the weakness in any structure of Importance in order to use it to demolish the structure.

Pursuing empty matters
10. Maharal, Netivot Olam, Netiv ha'Emet 2
הליצנות הם דברי הבאי שעושה מעשים שאין בהם ממש כלל כמו שהוא כל ליצנות, ולפיכך אין רואה פני שכינה... כי הוא יתב׳ ברא כל העולם ואין בעולם דבר אחד של ריקן והבל ושל בטלה. רק כל הבריאה הוא לצורך, אף שרואה האדם ויחשוב כי דבר זה הוא לבטלה אבל אין הדבר כך רק הכל לצורך, לכך אין רואה פני שכינה הלץ שהולך אחר דברי הבאי ודברי בטלה
Leitzanut is empty matters, performing deeds which have no substance at all, as in all leitzanut, and so one cannot be before the Shechinah… for He created the world, and nothing in the world is empty and in vain and worthless. All of Creation has a purpose, even if a person thinks something is worthless. It is not so – all is necessary. Therefore, a letz cannot be before the Shechinah, for he pursues emptiness and worthless things.

11. Maharal, Netivot Olam, Netiv haLeitzanut 1
האדם תחלת בריאה שלו בחסרון, ותמיד הוא יוצא לפעל לקבל, ואם האדם בשמחה כאילו כבר הוא בשלימות בלא חסרון , ודבר זה מביא אליו חסרון כי כאשר הוא בשלימות דבק בזה ההעדר והחסרון... רמזו ז"ל דבר זה , אמרו בפרק חלק אימתי יצר הרע ניתן באדם משעה שיוצא לאויר העולם שנאמר לפתח חטאת רובץ, והיצר הרע הוא ההעדר שהוא דבק באדם... וכל זמן שהוא בבטן אמו שיוצא הוויתו אל השלימות ואל הפעל אין דבק בו ההעדר, אבל כשנשלם הוייתו יוצא אל הפעל אז דבק בו ההעדר
Man is created lacking from the start, and he is perpetually becoming, to receive [growth]. One who is joyous is as though he has achieved completeness, without flaw, and this itself causes him a flaw. When he feels complete he is vulnerable to deficiency and to flaws… The Sages hinted at this when they said, "When is the yetzer hara put into a person? When he enters the world…" The yetzer hara is the deficiency which sticks to a person… As long as he is the womb, so that he is developing toward completeness and he is becoming, deficiency cannot affect him. But when he becomes complete then he is, and deficiency affects him.

12. Talmud, Berachot 30b
אביי הוה יתיב קמיה דרבה חזייה דהוה קא בדח טובא אמר וגילו ברעדה כתיב אמר ליה אנא תפילין מנחנא רבי ירמיה הוה יתיב קמיה דרבי זירא חזייה דהוה קא בדח טובא אמר ליה +משלי י"ד+ בכל עצב יהיה מותר כתיב אמר ליה אנא תפילין מנחנא
Abbaye was sitting before Rabbah, who saw that he was very happy. He said, "Is it not written, 'Rejoice in trembling!'" Abbaye replied: I am wearing tefillin.
R' Yirmiyah was sitting before R' Zeira, who saw that he was very happy. He said, "Is it not written, 'In all sadness there is advantage!'" R' Yirmiyah replied: I am wearing tefillin.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

They really are watching

While out shopping a couple of weeks ago, I saw a woman walking down an aisle with her daughter; the daughter looked to be about 10 years old, and she was holding a container of blackberries. Suddenly, the container top opened, and the berries fell all around her. I was taken aback when the mother took a quick look around, then told her daughter to keep on walking.

The following relevant video isn't terribly artistic, and it goes for the easy lines and Hallmark images, but that's okay; the message is gold. (h/t Modern Uberdox)

This also surfaces in my mind around Chanukah, when we light the menorah. How do parents light the menorah - Is it an obligation? A tense time because so much needs to get done? Or a celebration, eagerly anticipated and given real honour?

They're watching us.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christopher Hitchens' lessons on writing a derashah

[Not sure how I feel about this: Bringing the Kotel to You at Life in Israel]

I saw the following in Christopher Hitchens' 2004 bashing of Michael Moore on Slate. It's an attack on Moore's style of documentary, but it's also a very good point regarding the way a rabbi sermonizes:

I know, thanks, before you tell me, that a documentary must have a "POV" or point of view and that it must also impose a narrative line. But if you leave out absolutely everything that might give your "narrative" a problem and throw in any old rubbish that might support it, and you don't even care that one bit of that rubbish flatly contradicts the next bit, and you give no chance to those who might differ, then you have betrayed your craft. If you flatter and fawn upon your potential audience, I might add, you are patronizing them and insulting them. By the same token, if I write an article and I quote somebody and for space reasons put in an ellipsis like this (…), I swear on my children that I am not leaving out anything that, if quoted in full, would alter the original meaning or its significance. Those who violate this pact with readers or viewers are to be despised.

Two points here:
1. Certainly, a derashah must have a point of view. However, a derashah which only presents that view and fails to point out and address opposition is simplistic and dishonest.

2. Sources must be cited honestly. Quoting half of a midrash or a commentary because that supports your contention, but omitting the rest without so much as pointing out the problem, is, indeed, dishonest.

A good derashah, in my point of view, acknowledges complexity and addresses it with nuance, and uses sources without abusing them. Writing a good derashah is hard work. No wonder my Thursdays were such nightmares when I was in the rabbinate...

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Rabbi Akiva's lesson for Gap Year students

When I was in yeshiva in Israel (Kerem b'Yavneh, 20 years ago), mid-December was the time when hundreds of young men spending their "gap year" learning in Israel toppled over the edge of burnout.

Sometime around November, a combination of 1) studying mussar, 2) experiencing peer pressure 3) sensing they had a rare opportunity to learn and 4) escaping home supervision reached a tipping point and students began learning until 1 AM or later, taking few breaks other than to collapse into bed. Calls home were reduced, the "Out Shabbos" or Shabbaton was a nuisance, showering became a special pre-Shabbos experience, and relatives' visits certainly did not warrant leaving the yeshiva campus.

I don't know that things are still so, but in those days this phase would last for weeks, and then burnout would set in. The pace would prove too much, and most guys would drop into bed for a few days before coming to some sort of equilibrium. I have fond memories of that time.

One of the main drivers of the whole experience was the mussar I mentioned above – messages focussed on convincing us to take advantage of every moment. One of my favorites was the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Goldvicht zt"l's answer for a question raised in Tosafos Kesuvos 17a מבטלין:

The gemara there seems to conflict with a story involving Rabbi Akiva. The gemara says that one who is learning Torah should cease his study to take care of a funeral. On the other hand, a story (recorded in Masechet Derech Eretz) presents Rabbi Akiva saying, "Once, early in my time serving the sages, I was walking along the road and I found a meit mitzvah [a corpse without anyone to take care of it]. I took care of it, transporting it 4 kilometers until I reached a cemetery and buried it. When I reported this to [my mentors] Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, they told me, 'Each step you took was like spilling innocent blood.'"

What was wrong with Rabbi Akiva's actions? Don't funeral needs override Torah study?

Tosafot there asks the question and offers two explanations, but I recall the Rosh Yeshiva zt"l explaining it in his own way: Rabbi Akiva was 100% right for taking care of the meit mitzvah. However, being right doesn't change the fact that he had lost many hours from study, and he would never be able to re-coup those hours. Even were he to add hours from other activities, those would be hours which he could always have added. The Rabbi Akiva he could have become would never exist; he had murdered his potential self.

That sort of thinking can drive you crazy, I know that, but it's so blunt, black-and-white, unvarnished and unapologetic, that I find it compelling. It's true – being "right" doesn't mean you get what you want – and it's demanding. I loved, and still love, lessons like that.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Four years ago I decided to start this blog, with the post that appears below. This followed a stretch of a little over a year in which I had blogged anonymously.

My anonymous blog was fun, and it allowed me an outlet I never could have had when publishing under my own name - but it felt wrong to publish without the responsibility that comes when you attach your name to something. Also, the longer I went with it, the more I felt that I wanted to take credit for that writing. So I went nonymous, and I began with the post below, which explains part of why I wanted to blog:

Why a blog?

A few reasons:

Reason 1. Part of being a rabbi is being an educator. In that role, I want to teach, to inform, to challenge, to inspire, to lead, to convey a new point of view, to wrestle with ideas and perhaps - but not necessarily - reach a new conclusion. I want to offer depth and nuance, and participate in dynamic interaction.
The standard methods - speeches/classes/articles - just don't provide that venue.

Speeches - There is little room for serious challenge in a forum that must entertain as well as inspire. The davening and kiddush that follow guarantee that the inspiration, for most listeners, will quickly fade. There is little room for nuance in a presentation that does not allow for note-taking and requires that the rabbi address too broad a semi-listening audience.

Classes - Classes allow for nuance, but because of the large groups involved, timid (and even not-so-timid) voices are drowned out, and ideas that should be explored to a greater extent are instead reduced to a few moments and a "let's move on."

Articles - Articles in shul bulletins as well as newspapers are a stronger candidate, but those lack the capacity for dynamic interaction, for feedback and discussion and debate.

Reason 2. Oh, and I want to be able to be funny, too, or at least spontaneous, and in speeches you have to worry about breaking the flow of the speech, in classes there's never enough time, and in articles there's never enough space. So, perhaps the blog will provide a venue for that.

Reason 3. And, while I'm at it, another reason - I don't see why an idea, once expressed in a derashah, should vanish into thin air.

Reason 4. And, all right, another reason - to avoid the temptation of recycling my own material.

So here I am, proud owner of a new blog, which I have named Rechovot: A Place to Expand. My goal is to post some of my derashot, class-themes or general musings here, to continue the conversation.

And with that... here goes.


And here it has gone, for four years now.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Just a joke

[First, and most apropos: Straight from the laugh factory in Vilna, from Modern Uberdox]

I needed to write a column for Toronto Torah and wanted to build off the following joke, but I couldn't come up with a dvar torah that would fit the column and I was up against a deadline, so I went in a different direction. Rather than waste the joke, though, here it is:

Jonathan travelled from Vancouver to England for a business trip, via a series of connections. He failed to sleep on the flight from Vancouver to Winnipeg, enjoyed no success dozing off on the trip from Winnipeg to Toronto, and then found himself next to screaming twin toddlers on the flight from Toronto to London. By the time Jonathan exited Heathrow Airport in London he was desperate, so he rented a car and and parked along a side street to get a little rest.

As luck would have it, though. the quiet place Jonathan selected was on one of the city's major jogging routes. No sooner had he settled back to snooze when there was a knock at his window. He looked out and saw a jogger.


"Excuse me, sir," the jogger said, "do you have the time?" Jonathan looked at the car clock and answered, "8:15". The jogger thanked him and left. Jonathan settled back again, and was just dozing off when there was another knock on the window and another jogger.

"Excuse me, sir, do you have the time?"


The jogger thanked him with a smile, and left. Now Jonathan could see other joggers passing by and he knew it was only a matter of time before another one disturbed him. To avoid the problem, he put pen to paper and placed a sign in his window saying, "I do not know the time!"

Once again, Jonathan settled back to sleep. He was just dozing off when there was another knock on the window.

"Sir? Sir? It's 8:45!"

[If you feel like writing a dvar torah that uses this joke, feel free to put it in the Comments.]

And while we're at it, here's a video from a friend of mine from Allentown, whose son is one of the violinists [the one wearing glasses]. I love this - and make sure to wait for 3:23.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Is it Jewish to Occupy Wall Street?

As part of our kollel's "Occupy Wall Street" shabbaton, we provided the derashah. We were charged by the Rabbi to make it something "creative", though, rather than the standard speech or shiur. So we came up with a skit, which we presented after davening. The text is below; we ad-libbed somewhat, but we basically stuck to the script:

Abraham Schapiro III enters from left, wearing a nice suit and a yarmulka and carrying a briefcase. Neatly opens briefcase and withdraws container with sandwich. Play-acts reciting berachah and beginning to eat, while looking at a smartphone.

-15 seconds pass-

Jonathan Goldberg comes in from the right, in an untucked flannel shirt open over a T-shirt, yarmulka, jeans and hiking boots. Puts down a protest sign ("Down with Wall Street") and opens a brown paper bag. Play-acts reciting berachah and beginning to eat, while looking at a smartphone.

-10 seconds pass-

Abraham Schapiro III looks over at Jonathan Goldberg with a degree of annoyance, then goes back to his phone. 10 more seconds, another annoyed look. 10 more seconds, and he addresses Jonathan:

Abraham Schapiro III (AS): Some Jew you are!

Jonathan Goldberg (JG): [surprised, puts down the phone] What's that supposed to mean?

AS: Look at you – protesting in the middle of some park alongside Anti-Semites and Communists. Is that what they are teaching in yeshiva these days?

JG: I haven't met any Anti-Semites there, and last time I looked in the Torah I saw plenty of support for what I'm doing.

AS: And what exactly are you doing? What are you protesting?

JG: I'm protesting wealth.

AS: What does that mean, "protesting wealth"? Isn't that like "protesting sunshine"? Wealth just is¸wealth isn't something to protest.

JG: I'm protesting wealth held by individuals. By 1% of society. By big banks that get bailed out.

AS: We need banks, you know. Without banks, society would fall apart. That's the way the world works.

JG: The world doesn't have to be that way – wealth could be shared, people giving to each other!

AS: And what makes you think the Torah supports that?

JG: Gd brought a flood because people were taking property from others. Sounds to me like Gd is on my side!

AS: A flood, and suddently you think Gd is a Marxist? You amateur Bible-thumper, you've got to be kidding me. Those people broke the laws – the laws that Gd set to encourage and promote and protect wealth. If Gd doesn't want people to make money, why does He protect property rights with laws against stealing, against desiring others' property, against invading their estates?

JG: Because Marxism isn't the same as anarchy; Gd wants wealth to be shared, but He provided rules for how the sharing is done. Look, doesn't the Torah require lending, saying that someone who refuses to lend is בליעל, a wicked, worthless person? Doesn't the Torah prohibit charging interest when you lend to your brother? Doesn't Gd wipe out Sdom because they don't give to others? Seems to me, Gd wants us to share what we have.

AS: Sure – and when Gd handed Avraham and Sarah lots of wealth, and when He multiplied the crops Yitzchak planted, and when He transferred to Yaakov all of Lavan's cattle, they all gave it away right? And why did Yaakov drive such a hard bargain with Lavan for his salary, for that matter? And Joseph, the capitalist who made Pharaoh a fortune – was he some kind of anti-Gd renegade? Why didn't all of them renounce their wealth?

JG: Maybe because they were busy using their money to invite in guests and take care of others. Look, the Talmud says it, too. Pesachim 54b says, "Gd wants wealth and food to be spread around, which is why He has currencies circulate and why He makes produce rot." Gd is angered – angered, I tell you – by people like you, gambling in the stock market with other people's money to generate fortunes for your cronies while other people suffer.

AS: Don't go quoting me Talmud all self-righteously – That same Talmud, Yoma 19a, says that the Kohen Gadol is supposed to be wealthier than all of the other kohanim. And judges on the Sanhedrin, the High Court, are supposed to be wealthy. Are they all evil too? And what about us, you and me, when we say Birkas haChodesh, praying for a good month, and we ask Gd for a life of עושר וכבוד, wealth and honour – what do you make of that? Your definition of a good month includes making money, don't kid yourself.

JG: Yeah, but-

Abraham Schapiro III's phone vibrates; he excuses himself and takes the call. Jonathan Goldberg contemplates the sky, thinking up his next line. Abraham Schapiro III puts his phone away.

JG: Look – I'll grant you that Gd's record is ambiguous enough that you can find different ways to read it, but look at the record of Jewish communities. Maimonides wrote (Hilchos Matnos Aniyyim 9:3), " We have never seen or heard of a Jewish community which did not have a Kupah of Tzedakah." Every community looked after its needy citizens. Even the kings did it - Maimonides (Hilchos Melachim 2:6) wrote about the king's job description, "He must be generous and merciful for small and great, he must exit and enter at their desire and for their good, and he must care for the honor of the smallest of the small." A Jewish state is a welfare state, taking care of everyone's needs out of the collective property.

AS (waving a hand): Stuff and nonsense! Sure there was tzedakah, sure we have an obligation to aid others, that was never in question. But don't tell me Jewish communities were anti-business, they were pro-business. Bava Basra says that Jewish communities in Talmudic times had councils who implemented all sorts of rules to support business. Bava Metzia 60a prohibits renegade merchants from creating unfair incentives to lure consumers, and it talks about protecting the market price from individual merchants who undercut it. Pro-Business, Pro-Wealth, that's the track record, and you anarchists-

JG: Marxists!

AG: Whatever you call yourselves, you are defying the weight of Torah.

JG: Wait just a minute – all of those rules you mentioned support what I'm saying, not what you're saying! The gemara is supporting creation of a system that controls wealth creation, as well as a government that makes all sorts of rules defining when one may, and when one may not, make money! Gd is a big-government progressive! Long live the NDP!

AS: Total nonsense. Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said, in Shabbat 151a, עשה עד שאתה מוצא ומצוי לך ועודו בידך, Make money while you have the means to do so. Make money, that's his instruction. Gd loves Stephen Harper for his support of Israel, but He also loves the Conservative drive to get government out of regulating business.

Jonathan Goldberg starts to reply, but is interrupted by his own phone. Abraham Schapiro III puts away his lunch and phone, looks at his watch, and gets up to walk away. Jonathan Goldberg cuts off his phone conversation and jumps up.

JG: Where do you think you're going?

AS: To catch minchah. Sorry, I'm not convinced, and I'm not joining your protest.

JG: Maybe you should ask the rabbi at minchah; rabbis have always taken the side of sharing the wealth.

AS: You've got to be kidding me – how are synagogues going to survive on that kind of preaching? Rabbis know how their bread is buttered.

JG: Really? Tell that to the Tzemach Tzedek, who banned the purchase of fish for Shabbos back in 17th century Poland in order to shut down merchants who were overcharging! Apparently he wasn't concerned about dues from the fish merchants, huh?

AS: That's one iconoclast, it hardly makes for a movement.

JG: Yeah? The Magen Avraham quoted it in 242:1 as a halachic recommendation. And Tzemach Tzedek wasn't the first – the practice of protesting high prices goes back to the times of the mishnah, when none other than Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel threatened to shut down bird merchants by changing his ruling on korbanot, because the prices were too high!

AS: Yeah, well he was a Nasi, he was independently wealthy.

JG: Then how about the rabbis' limitations on ona'ah, against profiteering (Bava Metzia 49b-50a)? A cap on profits - If you think the free market should determine prices, how do you deal with the way the sages put limits on profits?

AS: At least that's better than your silly Flood argument – but it's still wrong. First, the laws about ona'ah don't apply to all products. Second, I have more rabbis on my side – look at the way the rabbis promoted open credit for lending.

JG: Why does that support you? That supports my side! Do you realize how often the rabbis changed the rules of finance שלא תנעול דלת לפני לווין, to ensure there would be credit for borrowers? Didn't Hillel create the Prozbul, requiring that people extend loans?

AS: Sure, but look how they did it.

JG: What do you mean?

AS: Look: If a Liberal government wants to encourage lending, what does it do?

JG: It makes lending a requirement, and punishes those who don't lend, like through taxes.

AS: Exactly. And when a Conservative government wants to encourage lending, what does it do?

JG (with distaste): It makes borrowers reward lenders for lending.

AS: And what do you think the rabbis did שלא תנעול דלת, to encourage lending?

JG (resigned): I hear.

AS: I'll spell it out anyway, for fun: They made the borrowers pay. They required better-quality payment, and lowered the bar on evidence and collection methods, to create incentives for lending.

JG: But they did want to expand credit, still.

AS: Yes - All in the name of business. And that prozbul Hillel created to ensure that people would lend? It got rid of the shemitah nullification of loans. He encouraged lending by punishing the borrower and helping the lender.

JG folds his arms, pouting.

AS: Listen – You made a good case with those points about the Flood, and Sdom, and sharing wealth. And you're right about tzedakah, of course, and about the way the rabbis worked against price gouging.

JG: And you're right about the way they encouraged lending, I suppose. And about the Torah's protection of property rights.

AS: And don't forget R' Shimon ben Elazar's encouragement to make money while you have the chance.

JG: Yes, that too. So what do we end up with – some kind of wishy-washy, "To each his own?"

AS: Basically.

JG: Bummer.

AS: Glad you've seen the light.

Abraham Schapiro III gets up to leave. After a beat, Jonathan Goldberg follows him.

AS: Where do you think you're going?

JG: Coming with you to minchah - and then it's back to the protest.

The two exit stage left.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Jews and Civil Rights Activism

This Shabbos our beit midrash will be holding an "Is it Jewish to Occupy Wall Street" Shabbaton at a local shul. On Friday night we're having a Civil Rights dinner program, and we'll discuss a pair of scenarios. Each table will have a set of sources to use in preparing their responses to the scenarios. Here's the material we plan to distribute [each table will have a sub-set of these sources]; I'd love to hear your thoughts:

Scenario #1: Police officers are indicted for harrassing members of a local minority, and a protest rally is held to challenge these practices. Should Jews participate in the protest? Why, and why not?

Devarim 10:19
And you shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Rambam, 12th century Egypt, Mishneh Torah Hilchot Melachim 10:12
It appears to me that we act with resident strangers [who have renounced idolatry] in the manner of the land and with acts of kindness as we do to Jews, for we are instructed to keep them alive, as it is written, 'You shall give it to the stranger in your gates, and he will eat it.' When the Sages said, 'We do not offer them greetings twice,' that was regarding idolaters, not resident strangers. Even regarding idolaters, the Sages instructed us to visit their sick, to bury their dead as we bury Jewish dead, and to support their indigent along with Jewish indigent, to promote peaceful paths, as it is written, 'Gd is good to all, and His mercy is upon all of His creations,' and 'Her paths are pleasant paths, and all of her ways are peace.'

Bereishit 33:12-17
And Esav said, "We will travel and go, and I will go with you." And Yaakov said to him, "My master knows that the children are weak and the nursing cattle are upon me, and they will be pushed for a day and all of the sheep will die. Let my master go before his servant. I will lead slowly, per the work before me and per the children, until I will come to my master, to Se'ir." And Esav said, "I will leave here with you, abandoning the nation that is with me." And Yaakov said, "Why should this find favour in the eyes of my master?"
And Esav returned to his path to Seir that day. And Yaakov travelled to Succot, where he built a house…

R' Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, 19th century Russia, Haameik Davar to Bereishit 33:1
[Yaakov said] "Why would travelling together find favor in the eyes of my master? Do not send me any of your men, for their company would be a burden for me." Esav understood from this that Yaakov's loving company with him was only due to temporary need, and that the idea of companionship with him and his men in general was not pleasing to him, and that Yaakov's eye was really toward dwelling securely, alone.

R' William Malev, Congregation Beth Yeshurun (Conservative), Houston, Texas, 1958; (The Temple Bombing, Melissa Fay Greene, pg. 183)
I certainly agree that martyrdom is perhaps the noblest service which anyone can render to a great cause. My only contention is that no one has the right to martyr somebody else for the cause he believes in. Certainly, the Jews of the South have the sovereign and unalienable right to become martyrs in the cause of desegregation if they so wish. I reject however any claim on the part of the national 'defense' organizations to impose martyrdom on the unwilling Jews of the South and to bask in their reflected glory of their self-sacrifice. It would seem to me that if they think so much of martyrdom, they ought to come down South and try it for themselves.

R' Yosef Dov Soloveichik, Confrontation, 1967
We cooperate with the members of other faith communities in all fields of constructive human endeavor, but, simultaneously with our integration into the general social framework, we engage in a movement of recoil and retrace our steps. In a word, we belong to the human society and, at the same time, we feel as strangers and outsiders.

Scenario #2: A fire destroys a community centre in a low-income section of town. Should the Jewish community rally funds to help rebuild the centre? Why, and why not?

Vayyikra 25:14
And when you sell to your friend or purchase from your friend, one shall not oppress his brother.

Midrash, Sifra Behar 3
How do we know that when you sell you should only sell to your friend? 'When you sell to your friend.' And how do we know that when you purchase you should only purchase from your friend? 'Or purchase from your friend.'

Vayyikra 25:35
And if your brother becomes needy and his hand descends with you, you shall grab hold of it, the stranger and resident, and he shall live with you.

Midrash, Sifra Behar 5
'Stranger' – This is a righteous stranger. 'Resident' – This is a stranger who eats neveilot [non-kosher]. 'And he shall live with you' – Your life precedes his.

Talmud, Gittin 61a
We support needy non-Jews along with needy Jews, we visit ill non-Jews along with ill Jews, we bury deceased non-Jews along with deceased Jews, in pursuit of peaceful paths.

Rambam, 12th century Egypt, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Zechiyyah uMatanah 3:11
A Jew may not give an idolater a free gift, but he may give it to a resident stranger [who has renounced idolatry], as it is written, 'You shall give it [neveilah] to the stranger in your gates and he shall eat it, or you shall sell it to a non-Jew.' To a non-Jew you sell it, but do not give it. To a resident stranger you may sell it or give it, for you are instructed to keep him alive, as it is written, 'the stranger and resident, and he shall live with you.'

R' Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Confrontation, 1967
Jacob continued, my brother Esau will also ask a third question: "And whose are these before thee?" Are you ready to contribute your talents, capabilities and efforts toward the material and cultural welfare of general society? Are you ready to present me with gifts, oxen, goats, camels and bulls? Are you willing to pay taxes, to develop and industrialize the country? This third inquiry is focused on temporal aspects of life. As regards the third question, Jacob told his agents to answer in the positive. "It is a present unto my lord, even unto Esau." Yes, we are determined to participate in every civic, scientific, and political enterprise. We feel obligated to enrich society with our creative talents and to be constructive and useful citizens.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

More on "Dress-Up Judaism"

Time is very short this week, so here's an article I've written for the coming week's Toronto Torah. It's on a theme we've discussed before, such as here: Dress-Up Judaism.

Why dress up for davening?

A young man proposed to his inamorata while unshaven and wearing dirty jeans and a T-shirt, and he was stunned when she rejected his offer. He asked her, "Didn't you say you would take me as I am?"
She replied sadly, "Yes, but I didn't think that you would."

We intuit that G-d will "take us as we are", that prayer should require a proper heart rather than proper garb. The Creator who formed us knows our most intimate thoughts, and from a timeless perch outside of our reality He has already witnessed our weakest moments as well as the fulfillment of our greatest potential, so what would be the purpose of artifice? How could dressing up disguise our failings?

The case of the rejected suitor demonstrates the value of dressing up: Donning special clothing, like the uniform the kohen wore for his service in the Beit haMikdash, is an act of respect. Dressing up shows that we value our meeting with G-d.

Our parshah (Bereishit 33:18) mentions that Yaakov arrived in Shechem shalem – intact, whole, complete. According to Rav Meir Simchah haKohen of Dvinsk, the Torah emphasizes Yaakov's complete state in order to explain a nuance in his conduct.

During Yaakov's travels, he brought a korban nearly every time he arrived in a new location; see Bereishit 28:18, 31:54, 35:1, 35:14, 35:19 and 46:1. However, Yaakov did not bring a korban when he arrived in Succot, despite having just survived his midnight battle with a malach and his meeting with Esav. Why was this trip different?

Rav Meir Simchah explains that Yaakov had not healed fully from his fight when he arrived in Succot. Our patriarch considered himself blemished due to his physical wounds, and unworthy to bring a korban for his Creator. It was only when he arrived in Shechem - the stop after Succot - that he was shalem, and ready to bring a korban.

Certainly, we should never feel that G-d is unapproachable; we are taught that HaShem's mercy is universal, regardless of our material or spiritual wounds and deficiencies. Nonetheless, our goal should be to emulate Yaakov and approach G-d in a state of shleimut, wholeness. G-d may take us as we are, but we should aim to become greater.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The lost art of bold ideas?

I've read and re-read Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo's pair of essays on The Art of Bold Ideas (part 1 and part 2), but I must admit that the author's thinking is beyond me.

Two thoughts:
1. It seems to me that the author inappropriately conflates a range of frustrations (intellectual laziness, foolish certitude, addiction to information as opposed to knowledge, religious defensiveness, poor teaching, etc) under one heading (lack of bold ideas).

2. In writing off the many foibles of our generation as a "lack of bold ideas", R' Cardozo not only does his many causes a disservice, but he also ignores reality.

Sectors within 'Orthodoxy' of the past two generations have seen several major changes; some of these have affected only some of Orthodoxy, and some of them have affected the whole:

* An embrace of the State of Israel and Zionism on practical and philosophical levels

* Social engagement with secular Jewry - a marked change from much of European Orthodox culture in the 19th century

* Acceptance of a liberal arts education in Orthodox circles

* Political engagement with the non-Jewish world on a level not seen for many centuries

* Development of women's religious education and secular education, including the achievement of advanced certification in both areas

* Shift of the center of halachic authority from Europe to North America to Israel

* Funding of Orthodox institutions by non-Orthodox Jewish institutions

* Translation of Torah - both verbal translation and philosophical translation - to appeal to the masses

And more; this is just a quick list.

In fact, it might be argued that we need a generation of consolidation, for that which changes too quickly loses its center of gravity. This would no doubt frustrate those who champion change and call for revolution, but it may be a necessity nonetheless.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Putting the kibosh on "dynamic"

Click here for "Rav Kingfish", an excellent piece by Jonathan Mark at The Jewish Week on the flaws of the "dynamic" rabbi.

Some of the article's key points match my own misgivings in many ways, including -
* the emphasis that 'dynamic' places on parts of the rabbinate at the expense of others;
* the problem of perpetually needing to 'top' dynamism;
* the way that "dynamic" can go to a rabbi's head.

And it reminds me of a piece I wrote in December 2008: Young and Dynamic and 124/78.

Here's something odd: Among the finds I reported in that piece was that a Google search for rabbi and “young and dynamic” yielded 604 results. Tonight it resulted in 501,000. The phrase "dynamic young rabbi" had 206, but tonight it registers 1,900. What do you make of that? Google's expanded reach, or something else?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Eleven years later

I came across the following old letter on my computer recently, and it reminded me of a time long gone, the year 2000, when my Rebbetzin and I were moving from our first shul.

We had been solicited to apply for a shul in a large American city [henceforth known as "BigCity"], we had visited for Shabbos, we had been very impressed by the reception there and they seemed to like us quite a bit, but we knew there were other candidates. On the advice of the Rabbinic Placement Office at YU, we interviewed in Allentown, Pennsylvania, as a "just in case". It was Parshat Vayyetze; this Shabbos is our 11th anniversary of that proba Shabbos in Allentown.

We fell in love with Allentown that weekend; it was just what we wanted: Great people, a warm, united and learning community, institutions to build, an attractive place.

We compared this with BigCity. The membership size was comparable, but BigCity had dozens of Orthodox shuls, a vaad hakashrus large enough that community members didn't know the names of any mashgichim, an eruv run so remotely that we didn't meet anyone involved with it, and so on. We were somewhat intimidated by the scale, I think, but our visit to Allentown also crystallized the more fundamental realization that the large, schismed community wasn't what we really wanted.

Two days later, we called the chair of the search committee from BigCity and told him we were withdrawing our names. Here's the text of our follow-up letter to the committee; the details of the community are excised:

December 12, 2000
15 Kislev 5761

Dear Members of the Search Committee,

As I am sure [Search Committee Chair] has informed you by this time, Caren and I have decided to withdraw our names from consideration for [Shul name].

In visiting BigCity, we were very impressed by the strength and breadth of your Jewish community. We found institutions which serve the people well, both on the level of physical needs (i.e. Kashrut, Eruv, Mikveh) and on the level of spiritual needs (i.e. [local Torah institutions and schools]). We also found the people very welcoming and friendly.

Our decision to withdraw is linked to that strength which we found in BigCity. After serious introspection, we believe that we are best-suited for building a community on a fundamental level – creating and strengthening those very institutions which make BigCity a thriving Jewish enviroment.

Thank you very much for all of the time and effort you invested in this process, and for introducing us to your wonderful community. If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact us at ...

Sincerely yours,

I am still kind of stunned that we did this. Getting the position in Allentown was far from a foregone conclusion; in the end there was a run-off, such that we had to go back for a second visit, as did our rival candidates, and the final vote was a close call. But we had the sense that this was what we wanted.

Thank Gd, we are very happy with the decision we made. I'm amazed at the Divine aid we received then, particularly in deciding to go to Allentown for that "just in case" visit at all, and then through the rest of the way. הרואה את בנולד is an unusual gift; who ever knows where their decisions will lead?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Class: Physicians and Intimate Care of Patients

I expect to give a class next week on physicians and intimate examinations. I hope to cover the following vignettes, and I'd appreciate feedback on them:

A. Charles, a medical student, wishes to become an OB/GYN, but he knows that halachah severely restricts men from seeing female genitalia or touching the female body. May he train as an OB/GYN, or need he change medical tracks?

B. Sally is a physical therapist, and her job requires her to manipulate the limbs of patients, both male and female, but halachah prohibits physical contact between women and men who are not their husbands and this is not a life-saving treatment. May Sally treat male patients?

C. Jason, a resident doing an OB/GYN rotation, is on rounds when his group enters the room of an unconscious female patient. The physician leading rounds instructs Jason to perform a pelvic exam, but permission has not been requested from the patient. May Jason conduct the exam?

D. Jonathan, a psychologist, conducts therapy sessions for men and women in the privacy of his office. Halachah prohibits men from being secluded with women who are not their wives. How may he treat female patients?

[Regarding case C, I was floored to be shown articles here, here and here. Granted that the stories are not as simple as presented, it still shocks me. Gd bless the litigious American society, in which there would be strong repercussions for that sort of thing.]

Monday, November 28, 2011

Do you run your synagogue "like a business"?

[The Kosher Cooking Carnival for Kislev is now on-line here]

Over the years, I've heard people say, from time to time, "We should run our synagogue like a business." This sentiment generally arises when discussing budget deficits, charging for shul programs, and raising dues.

I understand what they mean to suggest. They mean, "We should not give aliyot / classes / the rabbi's time away for free," "We should charge people based on the cost of our programs / staff time / facility maintenance."

What they don't really mean to suggest is, "We should run our synagogue like a business." Indeed, one board member of mine once commented that this sort of suggestion is rarely heard from people who have actually run businesses.

To me, running a shul like a business means studying the potential consumer base, broadening and deepening the product line, lowering the cost of entry, investing serious time and money in advertising, and building a community of committed consumers who will network with their friends to promote your product.

Businesses certainly do give things away for free. Businesses do not charge for their products/services based on their real costs. Businesses provide loss leaders and other incentives to get people in the door – just as synagogues do, actually.

I know of synagogues which think it "business-like" to charge people to be on the shul mailing list. But what business would do that? Businesses would gladly pay you for permission to send you information – and they do, regularly, in the form of raffles and the like which are created solely in order to harvest names and contact information.

I know of synagogues which think it "business-like" to publicize their programs only to their members. Is that "running the synagogue like a business"? What business would do that? Is this an attempt to squelch growth?

The truth is that synagogues have a hard time developing a good business model, because much of their product is generally available for free. It's hard to come up with a system by which the synagogue can provide a full range of services and survive economically. But if we think the answer is to run the synagogue "like a business", then let's do it for real – studying the market, designing a great product, reaching out, making sure our services are priced right, and welcoming in the masses of people we will doubtless attract.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Better to Give?

A quick thought that came to me as I woke up this morning:

Do we gauge the value of tzedakah based on what the recipient gets, or based on what the donor provides?

From a utilitarian ["Did the indigent receive help"] perspective, we would look at the benefit to the recipient – if I give him something he can’t use, there’s no mitzvah. If someone is starving and I give him a roll of gift wrap, I have not fulfilled my obligation. After all, the biblical mandate of די מחסורו, “Give whatever he lacks,” dictates that I base my gift on his needs.

On the other hand, from a mitzvah ["Did you fulfill your obligation"] perspective we do calculate based on what I give. Case: If I give an indigent person a ride to his relatives for Yom Tov, and it’s a 200 mile trip so that I saved him a great deal of money, that’s a tzedakah contribution. However, if I was going in that direction anyway then I can’t count that toward my maaser kesafim, my 10% tithe, because I didn’t actually give away anything.

Perhaps it’s a difference between the mitzvah of tzedakah and the practice of maaser kesafim, of tithing my income. For tzedakah purposes, we gauge by the recipient. For maaser, we gauge based on what I gave?

I think there’s a lot more to say here, but it’s time to go. Perhaps I'll add more later.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Class: How to write in your siddur

On Wednesday night I'm delivering a shiur for women on "How to write in your siddur", a development based on the blog posts that appear here and here.

Here is the majority of my source sheet, excluding passages which I'll use for a "Writing Workshop". [UPDATE: The audio of the session is now available here.]:

Why use a siddur
1. Talmud Yerushalmi, Berachot 2:4
נתפלל ומצא עצמו בשומע תפילה חזקה כוין... א"ר חייא רובא אנא מן יומיי לא כיונית אלא חד זמן בעי מכוונה והרהרית בלבי ואמרית מאן עליל קומי מלכא קדמי ארקבסה אי ריש גלותא שמואל אמר אנא מנית אפרוחיא רבי בון בר חייא אמר אנא מנית דימוסיא א"ר מתניה אנא מחזק טיבו לראשי דכד הוה מטי מודים הוא כרע מגרמיה
One who prays and finds himself at 'shomeia tefillah' may assume he had proper intent… R' Chiyya the Great said: I never concentrated properly; once I tried to concentrate, and then I began to wonder who goes before the king first, the officer or the exilarch. Shemuel said: I count clouds (other editions: birds). R' Bun bar Chiyya said: I could bricks. R' Matniyah said: I am grateful to my head, for when I reach Modim it bows on its own!

2. Tosefta Shabbat 13:4
הברכות אע"פ שיש בהן מאותות השם ומענינות הרבה שבתורה אין מצילין אותן אבל נשרפין במקומן מכן אמרו כותבי ברכות כשורפי תורה
Even though blessings contain the letters of the Name and many matters of Torah, one may not save them; they are burned where they are. Therefore they said: Those who write blessings are as those who burn Torah.

3. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tefilah 4:19
תפלות הפרקים כגון תפלת מוסף ראש חדש ותפלת מועדות צריך להסדיר תפלתו ואחר כך עומד ומתפלל כדי שלא יכשל בה
One must arrange his prayer for special occasions, such as musaf for Rosh Chodesh and prayers of holidays, and then stand and pray, so that he will not stumble.

4. Pri Megadim, Orach Chaim 53 Mishbetzot Zahav 15
ויש קהלות כותבין על קלף סידור מיוחד לש"ץ להתפלל מתוכו ונכון הוא, וראוי אף ליחיד להתפלל מתוך הסידור...
In some communities they write a special siddur for the chazan to use, and this is appropriate; it is appropriate even for individuals to pray from a siddur…

5. Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 96:2
מותר לאחוז מחזור תפלות בידו בשעה שמתפלל הואיל ותופס לצורך תפלה עצמה לא טריד...
One may hold a book of prayers in his hand when praying; he will not be distracted since he holds it for prayer…

Our problems: Fixed text; Blob of text; Familiarity
6. Mishnah Berachot 4:4
רבי אליעזר אומר העושה תפלתו קבע אין תפלתו תחנונים
R' Eliezer said: One who makes his prayer 'fixed' – his prayer is not a proper plea.

7. Talmud, Bava Batra 164b-165a
שלש עבירות אין אדם ניצול מהן בכל יום הרהור עבירה ועיון תפלה ולשון הרע לשון הרע סלקא דעתך אלא אבק לשון הרע
One is not saved from three sins daily: Thoughts of immorality, examination of prayer, and [almost] harmful speech.

8. Rambam, Moreh haNevuchim 3:51
אם תתפלל בהנעת שפתיך ופניך אל הכותל ואתה חושב במקחך וממכרך... תהיה אז קרוב ממי שנאמר בהם, קרוב אתה בפיהם ורחוק מכליותיהם.
Should you pray with movement of your lips and your face to the wall but think about your commerce… you will be close to those regarding whom it is written, 'You are close to their mouths, but far from their innards.'

Writing in a siddur?
9. Mishneh Berurah 96:9
ונמצא באחרונים שאף בחזרת הש"ץ נכון הוא שיהיה הסידור פתוח לפניו להיות אזניו פקוחות על מה שאומר הש"ץ
The acharonim wrote that it is also appropriate to hold an open siddur during repetition of the amidah, so that one's ears will be open to that which the chazan says.

10. Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 90:23
הבגדים המצויירים.. אין נכון להתפלל כנגדם, ואם יקרה לו להתפלל כנגד בגד או כותל מצויר, יעלים עיניו. הגה: ולכן אסור ג"כ לצייר ציורים בספרים שמתפללין בהן, שלא תתבטל הכוונה
One should not pray opposite clothes with designs… and if one happens to pray opposite a garment or wall with a picture, he should close his eyes.
Rama: Therefore, one may not draw pictures in the books from which we pray, lest that prevent concentration.

11. Alternatives:

Practical tips
1. Mark phrases for special concentration
2. Mark structural/poetic elements that provide greater meaning
3. Add wake-up calls
4. Mark lines requiring explanation
5. Write in food for thought

Writing notes
1. Pencil, small marks, change them regularly
2. Spread marks throughout the various prayers
3. Be ready to replace your siddur
4. Don't distract from the davening

In lieu of the Workshop, here are some examples of items I have marked in my current siddur:
* Words and phrases for special concentration - ואהבת, באהבה, והשב את העבודה לדביר ביתך, ולעבדו בלבב שלם

* Poetic/structural elements - The imperatives in Mizmor l'Todah; The 3 types of Divine action requested in Al haTzaddikim; the theme-aligned sets of lines in Avinu Malkeinu; the two halves of Emes v'Emunah (across time / Yetzias Mitzrayim)

* Wake-up calls - Alerts for Shma, Morid haGeshem, Refa'einu

* Lines that require explanation - והושיענו למען שמך, שיבנה בית המקדש במהרה בימינו ותן חלקנו בתורתך

* Food for thought - Rav Kook's explanation of בעל מלחמות זורע צדקות, the two roles of Avinu and Malkeinu, the difference between a shofar and a nes in T'ka b'shofar.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Buying the nicest menorah for myself

After the Jews cross through Yam Suf they sing, זה קלי ואנוהו, which the gemara (Shabbos 133b) renders as 'I will glorify Him'. We are to use a beautiful succah, lulav, shofar and so on; this is the concept called 'hiddur mitzvah'.

But here is my question: Is hiddur mitzvah supposed to be a selfish value? Or are we meant to take it less literally, as an imperative to beautify mitzvos in general, including those performed by others? In other words: Have I fulfilled 'hiddur mitzvah' by purchasing a nice mitzvah item for someone else?

In my years as a shul rabbi in charge of distributing the shul's lulav and esrog sets, I never looked in the esrog boxes before selecting my own. I always paid for an esrog of a certain level, and took one of the boxes marked at that level without opening various boxes to compare the products within. [Other than the embarrassing year when a vendor specifically gave me a 'special' esrog – which raised serious questions of bribery in my mind.]

My logic was simple: If I take the nicest esrog, then I will have the most beautiful esrog and someone else will be forced to settle for less. I shouldn't have a beautiful mitzvah at the expense of someone else. Just last week I heard about a rosh yeshiva in Israel (I forget whom) who has the same practice – he takes a less-beautiful esrog, and leaves the nicest one for someone else. So I'm not the only one doing this.

In support of this approach, one could argue that 'beautiful' has multiple meanings: Holding an aesthetically appealing esrog is one type of beauty, but another, deeper beauty is found in offering aesthetically appealing esrogim to others. Perhaps if I enable someone else to perform a mitzvah beautifully, I can claim 'credit' for hiddur mitzvah.

But is that really a correct application of hiddur mitzvah? Perhaps we are meant to feel a degree of selfishness regarding our personal relationship with Gd.

Let's turn the question to Chanukah, since that's coming up: Is it better for me to buy a beautiful menorah for myself and let others use their less-nice models, or for me to give a less-fortunate person money so that he will be able to use a beautiful menorah, and I'll make do with an older, cheaper menorah? Or: In a family with multiple menorot, should I take a less-nice menorah, to permit another to use a better one? [Yes, I know it's actually a chanukiah. No, I'm not about to start calling it that.]

We might draw on the Mishneh Berurah's comments (694:3) regarding the Purim Seudah, when he says it would be better for a person to enjoy a basic meal and use the rest of his funds to increase his gifts to the needy for their Purim meals – but that's a Purim-related halachah, and not really about hiddur mitzvah.

I'm not sure.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

We don't do Worship

A couple of weeks ago, on a Sunday morning, I turned on the car radio and scanned for a station when a sentence from Yeshayah (40:12) caught my ear – as JPS renders it, "Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance?"

The speaker, a minister I assume, charged his audience: Gd is so great that He can hold the mountains in His hand! We can't even lift a heavy rock, and He can pick up all of the mountains and put them on a scale! How amazing He is! How mighty He is! We should all worship Him! How can we do anything but worship Him?!

I was left absolutely cold, and I wondered how anyone living in North America today could be left anything but cold by this call. Because Gd is big and strong, therefore we should worship Him?

First, the logic itself is poor. By this argument, should I also worship some person who is stronger than me? What about a person with a bigger gun than me? True, Judaism's classic approach is to be wowed by Divine might. We praise Gd for His might. But we don't use it as a reason for worship (I think, although I am not certain).

But beyond the logical argument, I see a cultural problem which might be endemic to North America but which poses a challenge to all Gd-centered religion: The whole idea of Worship is passe. Unmitigated devotion and respect and awe, dedicating myself to the service of another, is weird and out of place in our society. Even as our religious identity is informed by Psalms and framed by prayer, our cultural identity finds Psalms curious and prayer uncomfortable. Even were we to accept the minister's "Might makes right" philosophy, we could not easily go from "Right" to "Serve the One who is Right".

What happens when people read Psalm 150 in translation: "Praise Him with the shofar blast, Praise Him with the lyre and the harp, Praise Him with drum and dance, Praise Him with…"? I wonder how many people, particularly those unfamiliar with the synagogue and new to Jewish prayer, have trouble relating to those sentences.

To me, this discomfort is a product of our individualistic culture. Our cultural icons of the past 60-70 years have made much of their rebellious streaks; would James Dean worship? Elvis? How about Brando? Wayne? Bronson? De Niro? Pacino? Eastwood? Stallone? Clooney? Crowe? Jackman? 1940's Captain America would worship - but modern Batman? Never. [For some reason, I could imagine some of the parallel females being worshipful; the tough-guy character is not always seen in them. And, I'm not as familiar with them.]

Many of us find our way to Worship despite this problem, but I sense it is more an exercise of free will and choice than a sense of obligation, along the lines of gratitude and recognition of Goodness. I'm not entirely convinced this is ideal, though.

What do you think? Am I off-base? What is the driver for your worship?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

And it was, in the middle of the night

As Douglas Adams wrote of his protagonist, Arthur Dent, in Chapter 8 of So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish:
He almost danced to the fridge, found the three least hairy things in it, put them on a plate and watched them intently for two minutes. Since they made no attempt to move within that time he called them breakfast and ate them. Between them they killed a virulent space disease he'd picked up without knowing it in the Flargathon Gas Swamps a few days earlier, which otherwise would have killed off half the population of the Western Hemisphere, blinded the other half, and driven everyone else psychotic and sterile, so the Earth was lucky there.

I like that passage because it reminds me of strange hypotheses I had occasionally as a child, wondering if I had been immortal until I had eaten celery, or if turning right instead of left had saved me from some hideous disaster. I've always been addicted to the idea that a given moment, action or day might have unusual significance, which I could know if only I were a little wiser or more perceptive.

This idea survived my childhood; I still attach significance to the memories of nights preceding significant changes in my life: The night before I married the esteemed Rebbetzin, the night before I began as Rabbi in Rhode Island, the night before my job interview in Allentown (ah, the Ramada at the Malls in Whitehall – definitely not recommended, at least as it was in late 2000). Those were times of real change.

And then, of course, there were "nights before" when I thought something might occur, but that foreshadowed nothing at all – nights before plane flights when I wondered whether something might happen en route, moments during birkas hachodesh (the synagogue blessing of the new lunar month) when I thought this might be the month when I sold a manuscript, times when I bought a Powerball ticket and considered what would happen if this really was it.

This post is more than just a personal musing, though, because it strikes me that this idea of significant "nights before" is a central message in "ויהי בחצי הלילה, And it was, in the middle of the night," the Pesach Seder song which recounts watershed events from Tanach which occurred in the middle of the night. Rescues and vengeances and messages of portent for individuals and nations impact with shattering force at the apex of darkness, the moment when the balance tilts toward dawn.

I believe one of the themes conveyed in "And it was, in the middle of the night," is that every night has a middle of the night, every night is a potential "night before", every night can usher in salvation. ויהי ערב ויהי בקר, there is evening and then there is morning, and a new phase of Creation is struck.

To the Jew, every night can be more than just a joining of days, can in fact be a bridge between the mundane past and a glorious future. What remains is for us to capitalize on the opportunity… or to eat the three least hairy things in the fridge, anyway.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A different view of Shabbos

["Wow, now that's going to cause trouble" post of the day, at Life in Israel]

Jewish literature is replete with diverse praises of Shabbos for its regenerative and social elements:
• It's a day of rest from creativity, time to curl up with a good book, time to recharge.
• It's an opportunity to connect with spouses and children and siblings and friends.
• It's a chance to gather as a religious community, for study and prayer and – of course – kiddush.

Just look at the song מה ידידות, an educational poem traced to 11th century Germany, which describes the day as a time for eating, singing, learning with children, sleeping and enjoying.

But here's a description that doesn't get much airtime: Shabbos is a day to retreat from everything and everyone, and communicate with Gd. No family, no friends, no books, no garrulous kiddush.


Talmud Yerushalmi, Shabbos 15:3
אמר רבי חנינא מדוחק התירו לשאול שלום בשבת אמר רבי חייא בר בא רבי שמעון בן יוחי כד הוה חמי לאימיה משתעיא סגין הוה אמר לה אימא שובתא היא
Rabbi Chanina said: It was only with difficulty that they permitted greeting people on Shabbat. Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba said: When Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai saw his mother speaking a great deal, he would say, 'Mother, it's Shabbos!'

Maimonides, Commentary to Mishnah, Shabbos 23:2
הטעם שאסרו למנותם מן הכתב שמא יקרא אגרות בשבת, וזה אסור, שכל זולת ספרי הנבואה ופירושיהם אסור לקרותו לא בשבת ולא ביום טוב, ואפילו היה בו דברי חכמה ומדע.
One may read nothing on Shabbat or Yom Tov, beyond the books of the Prophets and their explanations. This even applies to works of wisdom and knowledge.

Lest one think these represent extreme views of pietists, the former is codified in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 307:1, the latter in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 307:17. [The latter source does add the caveat that some disagree and permit reading 'books of wisdom'.]

On one hand, I like this; I need to spend more time thinking about Gd. If Gd created me, and the purpose of my existence is to satisfy Divine expectations [in social relations as well as spiritual development, of course], shouldn't I set aside a regular time to contemplate that relationship? And might that go some way toward helping me feel Gd's presence on an on-going basis?

On the other hand: If I were to dedicate my weekly Shabbos 'time-out' for this sort of monkhood, when would I spend time on all of those other necessities – recharging, family, community?

But that other hand may not be a legitimate point. A person who doesn't have a knife can't decide that his fork is a knife – it's a fork. A person who doesn't have money can't decide to use someone else's funds as his own. And a person who hasn’t set aside time for recharging, family and community can't decide to use Gd's time for those purposes.

And it may not be the point at all; does my concern for recharging, family and community simply mask a fear that I couldn't spend an entire day contemplating my relationship with Gd?

Something to think about.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Class: Attending conferences on Shabbos

I'm working on a shiur on "Attending conferences on Shabbos" at the moment. It's primarily intended for medical professionals, but it will have applications for others.

Because I've never attended a non-rabbinic conference, I'm relying on friends for input on the challenges involved, aside from the basic challenge of whether one may spend Shabbos in a professional milieu. I'd be glad to hear from readers: What issues are involved?

Here are the issues I am currently addressing:

Overarching Issues

* Is one permitted to study professional subjects on Shabbos?
* Is one permitted to put himself in a professional milieu for Shabbos?
* Is there a maris ayin issue involved in attending such a conference, even without violating any laws?

Positive Mitzvos
* How should one handle Shabbos and Havdalah candles in a hotel?
* Missing minyan for medical knowledge, or for parnassah
* Missing Krias haTorah for medical knowledge, or for parnassah

* Attaching nametag stickers
* Wearing a nametag in walking to a convention center
* Carrying in a hallway between a hotel and a convention center
* Entering a room which is unlocked via electronic key
* Entering a session, when an attendant will check off your name
* Use of elevators
* Use of escalators
* Use of doors which open via sensors

What am I missing? (Oy - This session is supposed to be one hour...!)

Update: The shiur audio is now on-line here.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Jews and Politics

[The following is my article for this week's Toronto Torah; note the ubiquitous Canadian 'u' and the gratuitous injection of French!]

The sage Shemayah was a leading scholar of the first century BCE, and mentor of the great Hillel, but his words in Pirkei Avot have gained little traction with Jews over the centuries. Shemayah advised (Avot 1:10), "Love labour, hate positions of authority and do not make yourself known to the government." Ignoring this judicious counsel, we strive for early retirement, we clamour for authority, and we have a long, colourful history of cultivating relationships with the government du jour.

Shemayah's own flouting of his first two pearls of wisdom is fascinating; he held the sinecure of President of the Sanhedrin, so that his advice amounts to, "Do as I say, not as I do." But to focus on his third recommendation, that we not make ourselves known to government, why did so many giants of our past – Rabbi Yehudah haNasi, Mar Shemuel, Shemuel haNagid, Don Isaac Abarbanel, Sir Moses Montefiore, to name a few – cultivate relationships with the governments of their day?

On one level, our government alliances are simply a product of Pragmatism. We would like certain things from society: the right to practice our religion without being harrassed, the option of sending our children to Jewish schools, the freedom to take Shabbat and Yom Tov off of work without penalty. We would like certain ideals reflected in municipal and federal policy. A pragmatist says that if we want to achieve, we must involve ourselves, express our opinions, and contribute to the public good.

We find this point of view expressed by Rabbi Yissachar Techtel, author of the Em haBanim Smeichah, regarding Israel and the involvement of Torah-observant Jews in birthing the nascent state. Writing in 1942, Rav Techtel berated those who complained about the secular character of the Zionist leadership. He asked, “Were you involved when they started? Did you build their towns with them? Did you move to the land and help build it up?” We must be willing to be involved.

A second reason for investment is Gratitude. We receive food through society's system of highways, profit from its stable commercial environment, and live safely thanks to its police and courts. We enjoy parks in which to play, and roads on which to drive. Our taxes fund these services, but society provides the oversight, design and maintainenance of this grand system. Gratitude dictates that we pay for this service, and playing a role in government is part of that payment.

Gratitude is the model taken by Rav Moshe Feinstein, in a letter encouraging voter registration. He wrote: "A fundamental principle of Judaism is hakaras hatov – recognizing benefits afforded us and giving expression to our appreciation. Therefore, it is incumbent upon each Jewish citizen to participate in the democratic system which affords us the freedoms we enjoy. The most fundamental responsibility incumbent upon each individual is to register to vote."

Beyond pragmatism and gratitude, though, we have a tradition of flouting Shemayah's advice because we are taught to invest in Community. We are a Jewish community, but we are also part of a larger community, and we are responsible to that larger community.

As the gemara (Shabbat 33b) explains, Yaakov pioneered this community approach. When Yaakov moved his family to Shechem, he contributed to the infrastructure of the land; Rav said that Yaakov established a currency, Shemuel said that Yaakov founded a marketplace, and R’ Yochanan said that he constructed bathhouses for the population. Rashi explains that Yaakov did this when he purchased land in the area; upon becoming landed, he made an investment in the public good.

The same message may be seen in our ancestor Avraham's plea on behalf of the hypothetical righteous population of Sodom. Avraham contended, “Perhaps there are righteous people b'toch ha'ir, in the midst of the city,” emphasizing that the individuals who could forestall catastrophe would be people who functioned as part of the citizenry, not as an isolated enclave. The work Panim laTorah cites the Vilna Gaon as highlighting this language, and both Ibn Ezra and Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch did likewise in their commentaries to the Torah. The worth of the righteous stems from their involvement with the greater populace.

Given these three elements – Pragmatism, Gratitude and Community – why did Shemayah take a stand against making ourselves known to the government? Perhaps Shemayah's words were formed in response to the Sanhedrin he personally led, a group of sages who cowered before the murderous King Herod (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 14:9; see a variant edition in Sanhedrin 19a). Shemayah was justly concerned that a nation which consorted closely with corrupt kings could be intimidated or bought. Nonetheless, the weight of Jewish tradition is with the Abarbanels and Montefiores; for reasons both selfish and selfless, we seek the good of the land we inhabit – investing, building, and governing as well.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Rabbinics 101: How to teach a class

[I can sympathize with this: Too Cool for Shul at Modern Uberdox]

I don't claim to be any sort of expert on teaching, but I have 15 years of experience in adult education across a pretty broad range of subjects and audiences at this point, and I do think I've absorbed some good lessons along the way. Here are four items, about presentation rather than content; feel free to add, or challenge, in the comments:

Make sure your enthusiasm is visible I learned this one when teaching a challenging, iyun series; after one class, one of the participants commented that I had clearly enjoyed that one. I realized then that I had not been very enthusiastic in presenting previous classes; I had been too caught up in the difficulty, and in insecurity about possibly making a mistake.

כמים הפנים אל הפנים, feelings are contagious. Human beings like to interact with human beings who are having a good time; people who seem stressed, tired or anxious make us feel likewise. Make sure people can see that you are having a good time.

And if you aren't having a good time, it's time to find out why and do something about it.

Over-prepare, but don't over-invest I am a strong believer in over-preparing, coming to class ready for tangents and questions that may never materialize; it's best to know the topic well, and have much more to say than you will ever get to voice. However, this comes with a risk – that we become attached to our content, on which we have worked so hard, and so we end up trying to cram in far more than we should. Our explanations lose clarity and our ideas are not expressed in a compelling way, and the result is a negative class experience. A rabbi should not become so invested in his material that he loses sight of the basic goal: Education.

And as anyone who has ever been in a class of mine knows, I violate this rule regularly.

I don't know, I'll check Never feel forced to answer a question on site; it's okay to do research and then get back to people, whether in matters of halachah, text, history or philosophy. This is also good because it generates post-class communication, which I find enhances the entire experience and helps create lasting relationships. It also demonstrates tangibly that the class is more than an intellectual exercise or fulfillment of a job responsibility; it matters.

Interactive! The people who come to classes may be doctors or lawyers or plumbers, teachers or mechanics or psychologists or accountants or businesspeople or middle managers or taxi drivers. Whoever they are, their lives are interactive – they are used to talking and listening and analyzing and responding and questioning and advising.

People may be accustomed to sitting in a movie for two hours or in front of a television for an hour, but human beings don't listen to other human beings talk at them for 45 minutes or an hour. Interactive is the key – icebreakers, questions, invitations to analyze.

What would you add?