Monday, January 31, 2011

What Parents Do

[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here!]

Sitting on a packed flight to Israel, I can’t sleep, as usual. My thoughts turn to my kids, at the moment.

I know I’m not the only parent who wonders, on a daily basis, what he can actually do to influence his children. In truth, from an intellectual perspective I know that much of what I’m doing is seed-planting, and so I’ve explained to enough other parents over the years. In ten or twenty years’ time I’ll see fruit, Gd-willing. But still – what can we do, to what productive ends should we direct our approach to training these soon-to-be adults?

I think it’s important for parents – like schoolteachers – to focus less on communicating information and more on communicating “coping” skills, meaning the approaches to handle life situations for decades to come.

• It’s less important that I teach my kids which fork to use for an appetizer, and more important that I guide them to watch others’ conduct for cues to proper manners.

• It’s less important that I teach them therapies for headaches, and more important that I demonstrate a healthy approach to illness and medication.

• It’s less important that I teach them Jewish responses to Christianity, and more important that I manifest a confident approach to living a Jewish life in a non-Jewish world.

And so, and so on – managing success, antagonism, depression, you name it. If the parent seems prosperous, if the parent’s life seems enviable, the children intuitively emulate her/his behavior.

Of course, there is a need for parents to convey certain specific information as well, just as there is a need for schoolteachers to do so. But my sense is that the coping skills are really primary.

This is especially true given the way that parental time with kids is structured; there simply isn’t enough time to teach data properly, and certainly not to multiple children. And then there’s the fact that kids absorb data all day long, and burn out on it. And the fact that parent-child relationships are not always geared toward direct-teaching relationships.

It’s more effective to teach skills. Multiple children can learn these coping skills by watching the same parent, even just being around the same parent. And those children can learn these skills outside of a formal setting, often by osmosis. And they can learn them by witnessing situations here and there, as they come up. And skills remain applicable over time, while data becomes irrelevant.

Just some thoughts on the plane…

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Yonah's Change of Heart

The following is my article from this week's Toronto Torah. It's a piece from a shiur I presented this week, in a series on Yonah; the shiur audio is available here.

Yonah flees from before G-d, seeking to evade his prophetic mission, and ultimately attempts to surrender his life rather than fulfill the responsibility assigned to him. This wayward prophet is swallowed by a fish, and - during the course of a three-day stay in the depths - experiences a change of heart. He composes a poetic prayer, and pleads for another opportunity to serve. Where before this man had sought escape, now he expressed a longing to draw close to his Creator. What inspired Yonah to alter his path?

One might suggest that Yonah was motivated by fear of impending death, or by the pain of life in the Piscine Hotel. However, this would ignore the passion of his prayer, in which Yonah spoke of remembering G-d and gazing upon His sacred sanctuary. Also, such an explanation would call into question Yonah’s sincerity, and therefore it would raise doubts as to why G-d granted the former prophet his wish. Why, then, did Yonah decide to serve G-d after all?

One possibility emerges from a dialogue between Moshe and HaShem on Har Sinai. As described in the gemara (Sanhedrin 111a), Moshe ascended to Heaven and found HaShem describing His patience in the Torah. Moshe contended that HaShem should be patient only with the righteous – to which HaShem replied that he would eventually come to see the worth of patience for the wicked. That day came with the sin of the Meraglim, when Moshe found himself pleading for Divine mercy for the rebellious Jewish nation.

As Yonah personally declared (Yonah 4:1-3), he had fled from before G-d because of a Moshe-like objection to Divine mercy. Commentators differ in their explanations for that objection, but all agree that Yonah contended that G-d should not apply mercy to the wicked of Nineveh. Perhaps this explains Yonah’s metamorphosis in the fish; like Moshe after the sin of the Meraglim, Yonah came to see the value of Divine mercy when he needed to plead for it himself.

Alternatively, Yonah’s own choice of words offers us another explanation. Yonah waxed rhapsodic (2:5), “I was exiled [נגרשתי] from before Your eyes.” This calls to mind two other exile experiences: “And He exiled [ויגרש] the man [Adam and Chavah, from Eden],” and Kayin’s charge to G-d, “You have exiled me [גרשת].” Adam and Chavah sinned, and then they hid and dissembled when G-d called for them and questioned them. Kayin sinned, and he attempted to hide the truth when G-d questioned him. Both were punished with exile, giving them the distance they had actually sought by hiding, and at that point they repented.

Perhaps the same is true for Yonah. Yonah sought to escape HaShem’s presence, and with his entry into the sea he was granted success. At this point, he was distant, and the flow of prophecy was cut off; Yonah 1, G-d 0. But at this moment the former prophet understood what his success truly meant – that he had erased his connection to the Divine. Like Adam and Chavah, like Kayin, he was now exiled. This frightened him, and he instantly repented his hard-won distance and sought his own return.

As the Vilna Gaon wrote (Aderet Eliyahu to Yonah 1:1), the story of Yonah is the story of every soul. We come to this world with a mission, and, at times, we wander from that mission and stray from the presence of the G-d who directs us. Yonah’s renewed appreciation of Divine mercy through his own experience of forgiveness can teach us to recognize and appreciate Divine kindness in our own lives. Yonah’s appreciation for the value of proximity to G-d can remind us to be similarly motivated to draw closer to our Creator. May we learn the lessons of the man who was swallowed by a fish, and so draw closer to the G-d who has charged us with missions of our own.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Jewish Honeymoons?

[I did the kollel's two-minute parshah video this week; you can find it here.]

I felt like I was back in the rabbinate this morning: Daf shiur at 6 AM, then a bris, then a navi shiur, and then a 10 AM levayah.

And someone I had tried to help was angry at me . Like I said, felt like the rabbinate all over again. (Although, there is something to be said for attending a levayah as someone other than the mesader and the niftar.)

I’ve been thinking about Shanah Rishonah (literally "the first year") lately.

Shanah Rishonah is the practice of having a newly married couple remain at home, or go out together, every night during their first year of marriage. It is built on Devarim 24:5, which states that a newly married man does not go to the army for the first year after marriage; rather, “he shall be clean [of outside obligations] to be home for a year, and he shall gladden the wife he has taken.” In one example of Shanah Rishonah adherence, kollelim often tell their avreichim to stay home from night seder for their first year of marriage.

This practice is important, I think, in order to set a certain foundation and default setting for the marriage even beyond the shared experience that occurs during the first year. It is far more valuable than a honeymoon, to me. If a couple starts out with the assumption that they will spend time together, that the place they belong at night is with each other, then they become more apt to fulfill that going forward.

The Rebbetzin and I never had a “shanah rishonah.” We got married on August 17, signed the contract with our first shul during the week of sheva berachos, and started in that shul on August 31. My rebbetzin spent the next two years commuting to law school, and I was running the shul, teaching in a local high school, translating the Aruch haShulchan and transcribing tapes of Rav Soloveitchik’s Tisha b’Av shiurim. There was no break.

Thank Gd, we made it through and we’re doing fine almost fourteen years later, but we really should have taken some time that year, as a quasi-shanah rishonah. That we didn’t do this was a mistake.

On the other hand – shanah rishonah isn’t really an option for many couples. Jobs and school often require late nights in the workplace, or the library, and that’s just the way it is.

What was your Shanah Rishonah experience? Did you have it? No? Either way, what was the impact?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Why it comes out backwards

[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here, at Jack’s new site]

Looking at אפיק בנגב over Shabbos, I saw a great quote from Rav Kook. [The book itself is a tribute to Rav Avraham Yitzchak Neriah z”l, one of the founders of Yeshivat haNegev and son of Rav Moshe Tzvi Neriah z”l.]

Rav Kook pointed out that the gemara (Shabbos 55a) says, "חותמו של הקב"ה אמת," "The seal of Gd is Truth." He added that since human beings are modeled after Gd, we, too, have that seal of Truth.

Rav Kook continued to say that just as a sealing ring’s mark is only visible after the ring is removed from the paper, so a human being’s mark on the world is visible only after ‘the ring is removed from the paper,’ after the person has passed on from this world.

I thought it was a beautiful extension of the gemara’s point, but the comparison of people and sealing rings did leave me with a disturbing thought: With a sealing ring, everything marked on the ring is reversed in its imprint.

So is that why so much of what I try to do comes out backward?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Satire Wire returns

I am thrilled that Satire Wire is back!

Ten years ago, Satire Wire had the best comedy on the Net - but then site-owner Andrew Marlatt quit. As he posted on the homepage, "Citing creative differences, SatireWire's founder and sole employee, Andrew Marlatt, announced in August of 2002 that the site would no longer be updated." And all I could do was read old posts like, "Gd names next Chosen People," "Remaining US CEOs make a break for it" and "Religious merger creates 900 Million HinJews", and wish The Onion could one day be as funny as Marlatt.

Well, now they're back! To check out two of their latest, go see US Apologizes for Biden's 'Hu's on first' routine and Tired of Favre, Gd Collapses Metrodome.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Repent! Signed, Anonymous

They tell the story of the rabbi who finds a slip of paper under his door, with one word on it: Jerk!.

So the rabbi gets up in shul on Shabbos morning and says, “I’ve received letters before where someone wrote a whole message and forgot to sign his name, but this week I had a first: Someone signed his name and forgot to write a letter!”

This never happened to me in my rabbinate, but I always get a kick out of the story - especially when I get the urge, as I still do from time to time, to drop someone in shul an anonymous note.

It’s hard to be a mochiach (rebuker), as I’ve explained somewhere on this blog before, so I’d really rather leave people Post-It notes with references to Shulchan Aruch, or fortune cookie-style slips of paper with pithy suggestions. The concept is tempting, with its promise of non-confrontational improvement… but, boy, would that be a bad idea. Even if I weren’t caught.

First, it’s a bad idea because leaving off your name only means that the recipient will focus on figuring out who wrote the note, not on the contents themselves. You know it’s true; imagine how you would react upon receiving such an annoying message. Who’s thinking that about me? And why doesn’t he have the guts to say it to my face? Maybe it’s Yochanan. Or Shmuel. Or Yehudis - yes, it has to be her, I see the dirty looks she gives me at kiddush. And then you get the revenge plans: I’ll show her! I’ll do… etc.

But second, it’s a bad idea because that’s not how mussar (rebuke) works. Most of us don’t learn from information; we learn from relationships, from people about whom we care and who care about us. Straight information is hard to internalize unless one is predisposed toward it, as in the case of a person who learns mussar regularly. As a general rule, we learn better from people who we know respect and care for us. Take the mochiach's face out of the picture and it won’t work at all. (For a great example, see Yisro’s approach to Moshe in this week’s parshah.)

And then third, my Rebbitzen (cue the angels with the trumpets! rays of light break over the horizon to herald the words of the great tzaddekes) points out the rebuker needs to face the rebukee face-to-face, so that he’ll be forced to think about the best way to present his message. If he has to do this directly, he might actually think twice and three times about whether to present the message at all.

So the anonymous notes don’t go out. Instead, I have to sit down and think through how to say, what to say and when to say. More work…

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Rabbi in search of a recipe

[Post I'm mulling: Loughner: Schizophrenia or Terrorist at Everyone Needs Therapy]

When I first married the Rebbetzin, I was a passable cook; my portfolio included basic chicken and beef, and a few sides and desserts. I even specialized in a homemade salsa. But all of that changed in the shul rabbinate; the frenzied and unpredictable schedule made cooking, and knowing whether I would be able to eat what I cooked, pretty much impossible.

Enter the kollel, and although I still work long hours – longer, actually, in some ways – the schedule is far more predictable. So I’m back in the cooking business, one day per week.

Why do I want to get back in?
• The Rebbetzin does enough for me, surely I can do something in return.

• I like to try unique tastes, but asking the Rebbetzin to cater to that would be unfair.

• It's a form of chesed for my family; certainly, I could just purchase ready-made food, but as Rav noted (Bava Metzia 86b) regarding Avraham, chesed is best when the hard work is performed personally.

• Tehillim 128:2 – יגיע כפיך כי תאכל אשריך וטוב לך – When you eat the work of your hands, you are fortunate and it is good for you.

The only catch is that I still have very little time: I have a one-hour window from the time my alarm goes off in the morning until the Daf starts, and I’m out from Daf until dinner, so all of the cooking must take place in that rather packed hour. Problem.

Solution: Slow-cooking, aka crockpot cooking. As long as the ingredients are simple, and the prep time is low, I can put it all together and get the food going, and then come back at dinnertime to turn it off and serve.

So far, I’ve tried the following:

• Chicken, apricot jam and salsa – Very good.

• Chicken, VH pad thai sauce – Eh.

• Chick peas (aka garbanzo beans), rice, various spices, soy sauce, horeseradish, a hot pepper, onion, carrot and a sweet potato - Very enterprising. Not very good.

• Chicken, tomato sauce, two quartered tomatoes, an orange pepper, a halved onion. This is in the crockpot as we speak.

So I’m looking for more recipes to try. I’ve bought a bunch of sauces to try, but I can go beyond that if the ingredients are few. I’m chicken-based, because it’s inexpensive and it’s a good anchor for a meal, and I like to avoid starches that stick to the pot, but I’d try vegetarian dishes as well. Please send your recipes my way!

[And while we're on the topic, Rafi at Life in Israel has a post asking Will cholent get people to go to shul?, reminding me that I did have one opportunity to cook over the years - my annual also-ran entry in our shul chulent contest.]

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Class: Halachic issues in treating anxiety and depression

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

This morning I presented a shiur on halachic issues in treating anxiety and depression.

I've used other opportunities to talk about clinical depression, such as in the Rosh haShanah derashah you can find here. This was a halachah shiur, though, part of a monthly CME shiur given to physicians. The focus was on whether these mental health conditions qualify to warrant violation of Shabbat, kashrut, and the laws of contraception and abortion.

You can find the audio and source sheet here; below are the vignettes we used:

Joshua, a 45 year old man, experiences racing thoughts and mania, for which he has begun a course of antipsychotics. Is he permitted to take them on Shabbat?

Leah, a 25 year old mother of two children, experienced heavy postpartum depression after both births, managing it only with extensive therapy and drug treatment. She would like to begin birth control to avert future pregnancies. Birth control pills, generally considered the halachically best form, might lead to worse symptoms; she would want to use an IUD. May she use an IUD?

Jason, 38, displays symptoms of depression, and has spoken, albeit vaguely, of suicidal thoughts. It is Friday, and the only option for commitment is a facility where kosher food is unavailable, and he will need to remain in a non-shomer-shabbat environment through Shabbat. May we commit Jason?

Lauren, 50, is manifesting signs of serious depression, including loss of appetite, lack of care for her person, and loss of a feeling of self-worth. However, she refuses treatment. May we treat Lauren against her will?

Julia, 17, has attempted suicide with overdoses of medicine before. We would like to treat with SSRIs in order to lower risk of overdose, but we know that some studies have shown increased suicidal ideation in young patients, while others have not. May we treat with SSRI’s?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Finding our way to song on Shabbat Shirah

[This is my article from this week's Toronto Torah]

On Shabbat Shirah, when we read Parshat Beshalach’s account of our ancestors’ miraculous passage through the split Sea and their song of thanks, Jews traditionally throw wheat kernels to the birds. The practice seems to be problematic, in that one may not feed undomesticated animals on Shabbat; indeed, the Magen Avraham (324:7), writing in the 17th century, prohibited it. However, numerous authorities (Tosefet Shabbat 324:17, Aruch haShulchan Orach Chaim 324:3, and see Tzitz Eliezer 14:28) have justified the practice, because we are not doing this for the sake of feeding wildlife. Rather, we do this in order to recall the joy of crossing through the Sea, a moment when even the birds recognized the miracle and were moved to sing praises before HaShem. The rabbinic decrees against feeding animals do not apply to such a practice.

The combination of the joyous song of the birds and the joyous song of our ancestors invests this entire day with the identity of “Shabbat Shirah”, a Shabbat of celebratory song. What is a Jew to do, though, when he doesn’t feel the joy, whether due to external circumstance or internal turmoil? How can we sing, if we are depressed? What does a sad Jew do, in order to participate in Shabbat Shirah?

Rabbi Yisroel of Rizhin (as cited in Netivot Shalom, Shemot pg. 121) suggested that although certain days have identities which dictate their Torah readings, Shabbat Shirah is created by its Torah reading. Shabbat Shirah becomes Shabbat Shirah only when we read about the departure from Egypt, and the splitting of the Sea; this experience stimulates joy in depressed hearts, and catalyzes songs of praise for Gd.

When the Creator of the Universe sends the message to Pharaoh, “בני בכורי ישראל,” “My child, my firstborn, is Israel,” our chests swell. When the Source of All declares, “כה אמר ד',” “Thus speaks G-d,” and when the King of Kings commands, “שלח עמי ויעבדני,” “Send out My nation, and they will serve Me,” we come face to face with the first, greatest and most enduring source of Jewish pride: Our membership in a covenant with HaShem.

The spirit builds slowly through Pharaoh’s repeated stalling tactics and afflictions, until, ultimately, G-d descends to Egypt to personally dispatch our tormentor, highlighting the unique status of the Jewish nation. We are taught that G-d did not employ natural means, and G-d did not send an emissary; He altered Creation, Himself, for our sake.

Finally, this is followed by the account of the Jews trembling in terror before the sea, marching through the night and finally emerging on the shore to recognize their torturers vanquished and their chains irreversibly smashed. This ultimate validation of the tradition passed down from our founding fathers and mothers placed the stamp of truth upon our national aspirations.

This story can, if taken personally and seriously, redound positively and powerfully within the listener and move the sensitive soul to a crescendo of joy, and therefore song, as a nation, our nation, is freed from centuries of slavery, spared from imminent destruction, and launched upon a trajectory to greatness, in a single night that dawns upon a new day of freedom. This is the engine of Shabbat Shirah.

Shabbat Shirah is not a day to sing; it is a day on which to draw inspiration, and to be moved to sing.

When we listen to kriat haTorah this Shabbat not with an ear toward our neighbors but with an ear toward the joy-inducing events recorded therein, that will bring us to song. May we then merit the fulfillment of the prediction of Sanhedrin 91b, that the day will come when we will sing the song of Moshe, Miriam and the Jews together again.

Note: There is another element of שירה (song) in the idea of שיר as a circular ornament, and the circular lyrical structure of biblical poetry, and the idea of שירה as acceptance of the complete circle that is "human action-Divine reaction", but that's beyond the scope of this article.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Blaming the victim?

[Post I'm thinking about - Jared Lee Loughner at Everyone Needs Therapy]

Why is it that when an insane twenty-something shoots up a political event, kills Judge John Roll and wounds Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the fault lies with the people who incited him

...But when terrorists bomb, shoot and knife Israelis, the fault lies not with the Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad and so on handlers who incited them, but with the Israelis the terrorists were angry at – the victims, in other words?

...And when 20 Muslims fly planes into the World Trade Center, killing thousands, the fault lies not with the imams who incited them, but with the Americans the imams were angry at – the victims, in other words?

Why not blame the victims - Congresswoman Giffords, Judge Roll - the same way that the world blames Israelis and Americans for the actions of the people who attack them? Why not blame Democrats, or moderates, for the reaction of Jared Lee Loughner? As repugnant as I find the idea, wouldn't it be consistent with society's general approach?

Or, perhaps, might it be correct to change society's general approach, and to stop blaming the American government, or Israelis, for the actions of the terrorists who attack them?

I’m just asking.

Monday, January 10, 2011

What we don’t know could fill volumes

[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here]

In preparing the Daf for last Friday, I saw an interesting discussion regarding the construction of the mizbeiach [altar] in the Beit haMikdash [Temple in Jerusalem].

Without going into great detail: We learn that the Temple Mount was constructed atop a set of hollow areas, for technical reasons. However, the altar would be disqualified if the space beneath it was hollow.

The Mishneh l’Melech (Hilchot Beit haBechirah 1:13) sought to prove that the altar stood on solid ground (based on an incident involving a skull unearthed from beneath it). As part of his discussion, he said that this altar was located beneath a roof.

I related this comment of the Mishneh l'Melech in my Daf shiur – and was challenged based on the fact that traditional pictures of the Beit haMikdash describe this altar as standing in the open air. Here's a sample photo of one model, from

And this from the Holy Land Hotel’s model:

And that’s what people assume. But the Rambam writes (Hilchot Beit haBechirah 5:1), as the Mishneh l'Melech understood, that the courtyard in which this altar stood was covered.

Then again, the Babylonian Talmud (such as Avos 5:7 and Yoma 21a) describes miracles regarding the smoke from the altar – that the winds never made the smoke sway, and that the rain never extinguished the fire on the altar. This leads the Rambam to write (commentary to that mishnah in Avos) that the altar stood in the open air. So which is it?

Rav Meshulam Roth (Kol Mevaser 2:39) compromises by saying that the entire yard was covered, other than the place of the altar, where the smoke rose.

But my point is not to resolve competing sources. My point is that there is so much we don’t know, so much information of which we are simply unaware.

For nearly two thousand years we’ve longed for the return of this Beit haMikdash; we have written and studied thousands of texts devoted to discussing its construction, describing its beauty, investigating its philosophical and mystical significance and so on; we’ve taught lectures and authored poetry and painted paintings and taught our children about it; we’ve fasted so many fasts, cried so many tears, sung so many songs about it-

-And we don’t even know whether the yard had a roof, or not.

It's like, רחמנא ליצלן, a child who has lost a parent, and after some years has difficulty remembering the parent's face.

What we have lost is staggering.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

1948 UJA video with Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson

This is absolutely incredible footage; Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson and a whole bunch of others with appropriately 1940's-newsreel voices, and their pitch for the UJA campaign:

Thursday, January 6, 2011

I am not your heter

[Post I’m looking at: Renting to Arabs, at My Obiter Dicta]

Like all of us, I am a part of many ideological groups. I am Torah-observant. I am Zionist. I am enthralled with the Torah and writing of Rav Kook, the Chasam Sofer, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch and R’ Avraham Ibn Ezra. I believe in secular intellectual pursuits, and in earning a living, and in active, hands-on parenting. And so on.

But sometimes, the things said by people from my groups, in the name of the ideology I follow, are an embarrassment to me. And the things they do, in the name of the ideology I follow, are an embarrassment to me.

Not every action performed by an observant Jew, in the name of observance, is to my liking. I don’t believe in tax fraud, although there are Torah-observant Jews who do it in the name of Torah.

Not every action perfomed by a Centrist Orthodox Jew, in the name of Centrist Orthodoxy, is to my liking. I don’t believe in ordaining women, although there are Centrist Orthodox Jews who do it in the name of Centrist Orthodoxy.

Not every action perfomed by a Jew who embraces intellectual, secular study, in the name of that embrace, is to my liking. I don’t believe in training children to focus on dictionary-definition peshat, and denigrating midrash as a second-rank add-on, although there are Jews who do that in the name of this intellectualism.

And so on.

I don’t want to be their heter [legal basis for permission]. And I don't want to be tarred with their brush.

I don’t want other people to justify their actions by saying that my presence in their group justifies the things they do. Being a member of an ideological group shouldn’t automatically mean that I endorse every ideological action undertaken by its members.

But what do I do, when confronted with such statements and actions? I have three choices.
1) Ignore them.
2) Publically disavow them.
3) Create a splinter group, so that I can demonstrate that I am not them.

Option 1 is a problem, because it leaves the impression I agree with them.
Option 2 is a problem, because it creates strife and it means getting into fights I don’t want.
Option 3 is a problem, because it denies existing commonalities and creates more divisions.

So what should I do?
What should Republicans do, when they don’t believe in the actions taken by their own party, in the name of the party’s ideals?
Or what should shul rabbis do, when they don’t believe in the actions taken by their own shul or community in the name of the shul or community’s ideals?
Or, l’havdil, what should Muslims do, when they don’t believe in terrorism committed by other Muslims in the name of Islam, against Israel?

An interesting, on-going, problem.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Back to the Daf!

[Very worth seeing: The Death of Abu Rahma, on The Muqata]

I started teaching the Daf this morning again, after a 16-month hiatus.

Wow, did I miss it. I feel like Jim Tomsula (bottom of the page here), only I get to keep on going after the first game.

I’m not a fan of making Daf Yomi one’s only regular Torah study; it’s too quick and superficial. But for giving people an authentic sense of the breadth of Torah, its wisdom and challenges and contradictions and so on, there’s no substitute. And teaching it is a good way to make sure not to get bogged down in small, narrow issues, but instead to keep the big picture in mind.

Further, and not to be underestimated, it’s great to have a group that meets every day, same Bat Time and same Bat Channel, to learn together. While I don’t know the group here yet, I know that in our group in Allentown, where I did the Daf for 8+ years, everyone had a special “learning personality,” a special role, questions that everyone knew they would ask, items that everyone knew they would pick up on. This is natural in a group that studies and discusses and debates for an hour (or, in this case, 45 minutes) on a daily basis.

Rabbis often debate the issue of using a significant of their time to prepare and teach the Daf Yomi to a small group of people, and particularly in shuls where it’s an all-male group, further limiting those who can take advantage of their connection in this way. Assuming 30 minutes to prepare and an hour to teach, that’s 90 minutes of the rabbi’s waking time. Even assuming there are 25 in the group – quite large for most shuls - that’s still a small percentage of the population.

To me, though, it’s a worthwhile investment – because of what it does for the rabbi’s own learning, and because of the powerful bond this creates among the group. Going back to our Allentown group – many shul leaders came out of that group, and I think part of that was because of pollination among the group itself. (And, of course, because people who came to Daf regularly were people who knew how to make a commitment, and how to make time.)

When I did the daf in Allentown, we recorded the audio but kept it in-house, for Daf regulars only. That was partly because of concern about how the gemara might be taken out of context and misunderstood, and partly because I never prepared in advance. With this run, I intend to record and post the audios on our kollel site, Today's audio is here.

Now, the only slight problem is that this Daf is at 6 AM, which means I need to get up at 5 AM. Ugh. But definitely worth it.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Interdenominational Smackdown

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

From time to time, during my years in the rabbinate, I was solicited to participate in interdenominational debates. My policy was to refuse, because the possible benefits did not outweigh the likely cost.

The possible benefits:
1. An evening of entertainment;
2. A better understanding of each other;
3. A chance for the audience to hear all sides and decide for themselves.

Don’t get me wrong, these all seem like good reasons for rabbis to sit at a table and tear each others' throats out for an hour before a live studio audience.

But the likely cost is high: Either the integrity of Orthodoxy or the unity of the Jewish community would pay the price. I would either sell out Orthodoxy or bash everyone else.

Let me unpack that a bit.

The major self-segregated streams of Judaism – Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform – are all adamantly different from each other.

Ask a mainstream Orthodox rabbi why we observe Shabbos, and he’ll tell you it’s because G-d told us to do so.

Ask a mainstream Conservative rabbi and you’ll receive the same answer, but with the caveat that various halachot may be overridden by modern needs and views.

Ask a mainstream Reform rabbi and you’ll be told we observe Shabbos because we gain by doing so (cf the Shabbat sermon at the 2007 Reform Biennial).

(Reconstructionism is an entirely different ballgame; I find that one cannot easily typecast the “mainstream” of Reconstructionism, so I’ll leave that one alone.)

Shabbat is at the Torah’s foundation, tying in to Judaism’s most basic beliefs about Gd and the universe, mentioned several times biblically and so on. Shabbat observance is cited in the Talmud (Chullin 5a) as the very definition of observance, along with rejection of idolatry. And each of these major approaches to Judaism and Torah charts its own path on this most basic mitzvah.

Given the wealth of diversity regarding such a basic Jewish issue, how much greater is the diversity on less-fundamental issues? So there is little room for panel participants to agree with each other; even though we do have much in common, the discussion is generally about our disagreements.

So we enter our debate, and one of two things happens:
1. I am respectful of the others’ views, leading onlookers to assume I think all opinions are equally viable, or

2. I go Rambo and tear down opposing views, in establishing my own.

The cost of the former is the integrity of Orthodoxy; the cost of the latter is Jewish unity.

Of course, it is also possible that the panelists agree to disagree - but in the heat of the moment, in my experience, that's unlikely. Debates just don't encourage that kind of civility.

So audiences will need to find their entertainment elsewhere, and we’ll come to understand each other by hearing individual presentations. The debate format just isn't for me.