Monday, April 30, 2012

Misunderstanding the Gedolim

In a comment on my post here, R' Micha expressed surprise at the longevity of the ideologies of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook and Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, given events which occurred after their respective times, which pose challenges to their visions.

I am not expert enough to explain how the ideologies of Rav Kook the elder and the younger would address these realities, although my limited knowledge does suggest that it can be done. To me, the greater point is this: Many people who claim to be "Rav Kookniks" - and I speak of those outside of Israel, for I know less about those in Israel - do not actually have expertise in the thought of Rav Kook. Rather, they are impressed that someone who was as brilliant and Torah-observant as Rav Kook was a supporter of Zionism, worked with the secular chalutzim, and that's good enough for them. Certainly, they won't question Rav Kook's ideology based on new developments; they don't have enough familiarity with that ideology was in the first place.

The same is true within the YU community and its embrace of Rav Soloveichik; many claim to be followers of the Rav, without having heard his shiurim or read his writing.

And, presumably, the same occurs in other sectors of the Jewish world – perhaps with those who claim to follow the Lubavitcher Rebbe, or to be Breslovers, or to follow in the footsteps of Rav Hutner or Rav Moshe. Gedolim are adopted as role models for what they did, not for what they said. [And my use of the loaded term "Gedolim" here is meant to be translated as "role models".]

At first, one might consider this approach benign. A medical student may emulate a physician who is kind and dedicated and conscientious without knowing what motivates that role model. An athlete may imitate some star who has a particular training regimen without knowing the ideas behind it.

But there are risks involved: Consider the medical student who thinks he is emulating the physician, but only because he didn't understand what he was seeing, or where it applied. Consider the athlete who imitates a star without realizing that the star's approach is fine for someone at a later stage in his career, but won't help at his stage. Consider the fan of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch who knows Rav Hirsch talked about the beauty of the Alps, but who doesn't know when Rav Hirsch recommended they be visited and when he recommended one sit in the classroom.

I don't think there is anything malicious in this path of adopting role models without learning more about their ideas. But I do suspect it's dangerous.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Raising happy children

Two quick items for tonight:

Modern Uberdox discusses an important issue here, and

At a Yom haZikaron program a few days ago I heard Mrs. Yehudit Dasberg deliver an important message for parents. Talking about raising her grandchildren after her daughter and son-in-law were killed by terrorists, she said, "You can't raise happy children with a sad face." Amen.

I have many more post-able thoughts running around my head these days; hopefully, I'll get some time on Sunday to put something together.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The greatness of Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook

[Originally posted in 2009 here. I repost it now because the original received too few comments, and because I love it]

Yeshivat Hesder Ramat Gan published “Go’el Yisrael גואל ישראל,” several years ago. The book collects considerable quality material on Yom ha’Atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, from Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, his son Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook, their students, and other giants of Religious Zionism. It also offers a complete order of prayer for Yom haAtzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim.

On page 300-301, Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook is quoted regarding the Chief Rabbinate’s recommendation of saying Hallel without a berachah on Yom ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day:

On the Erev Shabbat preceding Yom ha’Atzmaut, a certain important man came to me and asked why our rabbis do not permit us to recite a berachah upon Hallel for Yom ha’Atzmaut. I replied to him that the ruling of the Chief Rabbinate is balanced and correct.

The enactments of the Chief Rabbinate apply to the entire community. Since, to our pain and shame, a great portion of our community does not believe in the great act of Gd which is revealed to us in the establishment of the government of Israel, and since, due to its lack of faith, it lacks joy, it is not possible to obligate them to recite Hallel with a berachah. It is like someone who sees a friend and is glad to see him, who is obligated to recite a berachah; if he is joyous, he recites a beracah. If he is not joyous, he does not recite a berachah.

Rav Maimon, whose entire being was dedicated to building Gd’s nation and portion, was filled with the joy of faith, and so he established in his synagogue to recite Hallel with a berachah. The same is true in other, similar places – the IDF and religious kibbutzim. However, the Chief, all-inclusive Rabbinate cannot enact a berachah as an all-inclusive ruling for the entire community, when the community is not ready for it.

In our central Yeshiva we had followed the ruling of the Rabbinate, for we are not a kloiz of a specific sect. We are associated with the general Jewish population centered in Yerushalayim, and since that population includes, for now, to our pain and our embarrassment, obstacles to complete faith and joy, and therefore to the obligation to recite a berachah, it is appropriate that we also act according to the ruling of the Rabbinate for the general population.

I find this explanation fascinating for many reasons, including the following:

• I’m not sure which group he means, when he speaks of those who don’t believe in the great act of Gd – does he mean those who do not believe in Divine intervention? Or those who do not believe that the State is an act of Gd?

• I wonder how many people who do not believe in Divine intervention, or who do not believe that the State is an act of Gd, daven in Mercaz haRav – and on Yom ha’Atzmaut in particular?

• I believe that his insistence on keeping the yeshiva – the bastion of his father’s Torah! – as an institution open to all, and serving all, and avoiding divisive practices even on matters we hold most dear, should be a model for all of us. This is true leadership.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Movies for teens?

By the time I turned fourteen, I had seen all three Star Wars movies, Back to the Future, Short Circuit, Grease, Superman, Superman II, WarGames, Romancing the Stone, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Flash Gordon, and probably a few more movies the names of which escape me at the moment. My family didn't go to movies much, that I can recall, but I saw them in trips with my summer camp, or at birthday parties.

I won't deny that listing those titles brings twinges of nostalgia, but I can't see showing those to my kids.

First, there is the halachic issue of looking at certain things. The Torah warns us not to stray after our eyes, and that includes having a male see a female in states of undress. Even back in the sheltered 1980's, what passed for a PG in the theater would not Please Gd in halachah. This one is pretty straightforward.

More, though – Even if you could skip any given scene, a teenage boy is going to face enough of a challenge dealing with his sexuality within the bounds of halachah; do we need to feed it by promoting a world in which it's all around him, a world of strapless dresses and bathing suits, a world of jokes about appearances and sexuality, a world in which the music swells as the characters kiss?

Nope; I don't see it.

Do you?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A lesson in dealing with cynics

Apropos of our discussion here about cynicism and lack of trust in rabbis, and the difference between past and present, here's something I came across in Yerushalmi (Berachos 2:) on Friday-

אין דור שאין בו ליצני' מה היו פריצי הדור עושין היו הולכי' אצל חלונותיו של דוד ואו' לו דוד אימת יבנה בית המקדש אימתי בית ה' נלך
There is no generation without scorners. What would the lawless of [King David's] generation do? They would go to David's windows and say, "David, when will the Beit haMikdash be built? When will we go to the house of Gd?"

This was a jibe with bite; King David longed to build the Beit haMikdash, and was told that he could not.[See Shemuel II 7, Melachim I 5, Divrei haYamim I 7 and 22 for more.]

But I like King David's response:
הו' או' אע"פ שמתכונין להכעיסני יבא עלי שאני שמח בלבי שמחתי באו' לי בית ה' נלך
He would respond, "Even though they intend to anger me, may I be rewarded for I am happy in my heart." [As Tehillim 122:1 says,] 'I am glad when they say to me, 'Let us go to the house of Gd.'

People mocked King David for various things - his lineage, his relationship with Batsheva, and, apparently, the Divine decree that he not construct the Beit haMikdash. But he took it in stride. A good lesson, I think, for today's leadership.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Parenting Skills

[See Wednesday's Picture of the Day at Life in Israel]

Over the past couple of years, as my oldest child has moved into teenage years, I've noticed a change in the skills needed for parenting. This is obvious once you think about it – why shouldn't parenting change as children change? – but I'm trying to put my finger on how the needed skill-set changes.

It seems to me that parenting younger children requires four skills: Patience, Advance Planning, Physical Stamina, Confidence-Building.

Patience enables you to deal with frustrations as well as tedium, whether they are a product of the child's will or the child's world.

Advance Planning enables you to avoid problems in the first place, by setting up your child for success.

Physical stamina is critical, from midnight feedings/changings to the long hours needed in blending parenting with the rest of life.

Confidence-Building is huge, in helping children mature with a sense of what they can do, and how they can interact in a healthy way.

I don't know that any of these skills are less necessary with teenagers, but it seems to me that as parents shift from the role of Maker to the role of Counselor, other skills become equally important, or more important: Tzimtzum, Insight, Subtlety and Respect.

Tzimtzum in knowing how not to speak, and how not to be visible in a way that intimidates or encroaches.

Along with tzimtzum comes Subtlety in expressing ideas in ways they will receive well.

Insight in understanding what's behind your child's conduct, or the conduct of those around him/her.

Respect in understanding and appreciating what your children accomplish.

What do you think? Where am I wrong, or what am I missing?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

If that's what it takes, so be it

I found this article funny; here's an excerpt:

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg recently set off quite a debate in the tech world when she told an interviewer that she works a 9-to-5 schedule:

"I walk out of this office every day at 5:30 so I'm home for dinner with my kids at 6, and interestingly, I've been doing that since I had kids," Sandberg said in a video posted on "I did that when I was at Google, I did that here, and I would say it's not until the last year, two years that I'm brave enough to talk about it publicly. Now I certainly wouldn't lie, but I wasn't running around giving speeches on it."

Here's the essential questions raised by the tech executive's comments and the debate that followed: In a competitive industry where your work is never truly complete, has it become socially awkward to leave work at a time that used to be the standard?

5 PM is "the standard"? In whose world?

That wasn't "the standard" in the rabbinate for me, and it isn't the standard for any synagogue rabbi I know. Even in a hypothetical, most accomodating congregation, where family dinner is respected and rabbis are encouraged to use their vacation days to recharge, I can't see anyone exempting the rabbi from nightly meetings and/or shiurim, from late night and early morning calls, and from the type of schedule which requires that he work well into the night to keep up the pace of classes and speeches.

It's not only the rabbinate, of course; other professions also demand absurd hours. Politicians. Young associates at law firms. Teachers. Plumbers. Medical residents. Accountants, in tax season. Professional sports. Private detectives. And, it appears, the tech industry.

Why should it be the standard, anyway? If you enter a profession then you accept the rules of the game, which need no justification other than, "This is the way the game is played." If you don't like it, get out of the field, but this is part of the job description, because that's what it takes to get the job done in the way the employers want it done.

To take my own former field: Looking after the spiritual needs of hundreds of families, teaching classes, researching halachic questions, functioning as administrator and officiant and publicist for the Jewish community, these take that kind of time, and that's just the way it is.

Frankly, the same is true in my current field; there is no way to do my job without investing 13-16 hours each day; it's just not possible.

And if the same is true in politics, law, or a start-up business, so be it.

Which is why I found that article funny; why should tech be any different?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Multiculturalism and Intermarriage

I'm preparing for a moot court addressing a will which limits the bequest to heirs who do not marry non-Jews. One of the questions involved is whether upholding such a clause is in the interests of Canadian public policy.

[Side note: I am against such clauses, in general. I believe parents should make their Jewish lives attractive to their children, rather than rely on threats. I know that living attractive Jewish lives will not necessarily lead children to emulate their parents - but my outlook is that threats are neither healthy nor good strategy.]

I've been reading cases and articles relating to the topic. Here's a relevant piece from the Canadian Multiculturalism Act:

It is hereby declared to be the policy of the Government of Canada to

(a) recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism reflects the cultural and racial diversity of Canadian society and acknowledges the freedom of all members of Canadian society to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage;

(b) recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism is a fundamental characteristic of the Canadian heritage and identity and that it provides an invaluable resource in the shaping of Canada’s future;

(c) promote the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society and assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation;

(d) recognize the existence of communities whose members share a common origin and their historic contribution to Canadian society, and enhance their development;

(e) ensure that all individuals receive equal treatment and equal protection under the law, while respecting and valuing their diversity;

(f) encourage and assist the social, cultural, economic and political institutions of Canada to be both respectful and inclusive of Canada’s multicultural character;

(g) promote the understanding and creativity that arise from the interaction between individuals and communities of different origins;

(h) foster the recognition and appreciation of the diverse cultures of Canadian society and promote the reflection and the evolving expressions of those cultures;

(i) preserve and enhance the use of languages other than English and French, while strengthening the status and use of the official languages of Canada; and

(j) advance multiculturalism throughout Canada in harmony with the national commitment to the official languages of Canada.

My sense is that (a) and (d) support the argument that the Government of Canada, as a matter of policy, recognizes the ability of members of a community to make such clauses, intended to preserve their community. [Separately, I will argue that this clause is neither racist nor discriminatory, since it is based on acceptance of a creed rather than any particular background or heritage.] But that could just be my read.

What do you think?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Ritual Committee: Rabbinic Extender

The Ritual Committee, acting with the Rabbi and Gabai, if any, shall assist in the conduct of religious services and distribute honors.
(Standard synagogue by-laws)

A mentor of mine once told me that a Rabbi’s authority must extend beyond Halachic guidance, to Policy guidance. This seems most logical to me – many communal, synagogue and personal issues are not directly halachic, but would benefit from rabbinic insight.

Communal - Allocation of community tzedakah funds.
Synagogue – Planning of Yom haShoah commemorations.
Personal - Co-ed slumber parties for teens.

There are two problems, though:
1. The Rabbi's influence, if brought to bear too often or without being invited, ceases to be influence at all. It becomes a nuisance, and is eventually ignored entirely.

2. On many of these Policy issues, people are personally invested. Therefore, every rabbinic stance is likely to offend someone. Multiply the issues, multiply the offenses.

So how is a rabbi to influence community, synagogue and individuals, without over-using his influence and without making enemies?

One answer: The Rabbinic Extender.
I've heard that a doctor’s support staff is called a “physician extender.” You know – the technicians who take your blood, the nurses who interview you when you come into the office, the physician’s assistant, etc.
The rabbi needs a “rabbinic extender” – someone who will do the job for him, to save his influence for the case in which it is truly needed.

For communal influence, the Rabbinic Extender may be in the person of insitutional board members he trusts.
For personal influence, there really may be no Rabbinic Extender.
For shul influence, enter the Ritual Committee – Rabbinic Extender extraordinaire.

When I first heard of a Ritual Committee, I thought the person was joking.
First, the term ritual is one I hate to use for davening; it connotes an academic coldness inappropriate for davening.
Second, why should anyone other than the rabbi decide what happens during davening?!

But over the years I have come to know better. As far as the first problem, get over it; people use the term “Ritual” and they like it. As far as the second problem, the good Ritual Committee is guided by the rabbi, but makes its own decisions, under its own name. And so, gone is the problem of the rabbi over-using his authority. And, gone is the problem of offending people with decisions; congregants who protest will be reminded that the congregants, themselves, made this decision, via a Board-appointed committee.

The Ritual Committee can decide whether to create a special minyan for a Sunday morning Bar Mitzvah.

The Ritual Committee can decide to encourage chazanim to sing more, or less, or to try new tunes or stick to the traditional ones.

The Ritual Committee can decide who holds the Sifrei Torah at Kol Nidrei.

Unless the issue is clearly and directly halachic, the rabbi can afford the ‘slight’ of having educated laypeople make the decision, in exchange for the benefits he receives.

And one more crucial benefit to having a good Ritual Committee: More people become invested in the davening and its coordination, so that they, and their circle of friends, feel closer to the shul and its operation.

Mind you, despite all of the benefits I generally remained uncomfortable with handing off this authority to a Ritual Committee, and I could do it only because I trusted my Ritual Chairs completely. But that’s the way of many responsibilities in life: If you want to survive with your health and happiness intact, find someone you can trust and then share the responsibility.

Monday, April 9, 2012

No one learns Divrei haYamim anyway (Post 1000!)

This is Post 1000. Hard to believe, but the milestone is here! [Of course, I could always publish one of my dozen or so posts that are sitting in draft, and then this would be 1001...]

I'm writing this post before Pesach, while preparing a Yom Tov shiur on Divrei haYamim. Divrei haYamim, usually translated as "Chronicles", is the last book in Tanach, and scares people off with the numbing opening lines, "Adam, Shet, Enosh. Kenan, Mahallel, Yared. Chanoch, Metushelach, Lamech. Noach, Shem, Cham and Yefet." And so on.

In looking at the Abarbanel's comments (found in his commentary to Shemuel II) on conflicts between Divrei haYamim and the rest of Nach, I found this gem in his explanation for why he couldn't write on the topic in depth:

וגם הספר ההוא דברי הימים בלתי נהוג אצל היהודים במדרשיהם את חטאי אני מזכיר היום כי לא קראתי בו מימי ולא חפשתי בעניניו מהיותי ועד עתה
Also, this book, Divrei haYamim, is not normally with the Jews in their study halls. I mention my own sin today: I never read it in my life, and I never investigated it, from my birth until now…

This from the sage who mocked Ashkenazim for their lack of efforts and expertise in Nach! Nonetheless, Abarbanel did come up with a fascinating explanation of the goals and methods of Divrei haYamim; here's an excerpt from my source sheet:

כאשר ראה הסופר השלם הזה שהשבטים אשר הגלו אשורה ספו... ונותרה בת ציון... וראה ג׳׳כ שהמלכות באמת נתן אלקים לדוד ולזרעו עד עולם, ושאר המלכים אשר מלכו בישראל משאר השבטים לא היו כפי הרצון האלקי, ושלעתיד לבא לא ישאר כי אם מלכות בית דוד... חשב למעלת המלך דוד לספר יחוסו ויחוס שבטו וענינו ומעשיו כלם המורים על שלמותו, והשתלשלות המלכים אשר באו מזרעו
When this complete scribe saw that the tribes exiled to Assyria had been finished… and the daughter of Zion remained… And he saw that Gd had given true monarchy to David and his descendants eternally, and that the other kings who had reigned for Israel from the other tribes had not been in accord with Divine desire, and that in the future only the monarchy of the house of David would remain… He thought to aid King David's stature by telling of his lineage, and that of his tribe, and his matters and deeds, all of which would indicate his completeness. He also thought to speak of the line of kings who came from his descendants…

וכלל גדול יהיה גם כן בו בידך, שלהיות כוונת הספר הזה להודיע ולהגיד בו מעלת דוד המלך ושלמיותיו ולא היה דעתו לזכור הענינים אשר עשה קודם המלכתו כי אינם אליו במה שהוא מלך, לכן זכר לבד הדברים אשר נתעלה בהם במלכותו, וגם אז לא ראה לזכור חטאיו והדברי׳ אשר עשה אחרי היותו מלך שאין בהם זכר מעלה ושלמות, כ״ש בהיות בהם גנאי ודופי מה
You should keep a great principle in your hand: Since the intent of this book is to inform us of King David's stature and completeness, and not to include that which David did before his reign, which was not related to his monarchy, therefore he only mentioned that which elevated him in his reign, and not his sins and that which he did after becoming king which did not indicate his stature or completeness, certainly if it contained disgrace or impropriety…

Very interesting.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Interested in a Daily Omer reminder?

Gd-willing, I will send out a daily Omer email throughout the Omer, including a note about the day's particular Sefirah as well as an event from that day in Jewish history.

Here are the first two emails:
Day 1: Chesed sheb'Chesed - Kindness in Kindness
Please see below for an introduction to the Sephirot, the mystical associations of each day of the Omer. Each day's dvar torah email will focus on the Sephirah associated with that day.

The Sephirah of the Omer's first week is Chesed. Chesed is kindness which motivates a person to give of himself - physically, financially, emotionally - to another.

The term Chesed sheb'Chesed, "the kindness in kindness", suggests the most pure breed of kindness - helping others not because of external goals or benefits, and not begrudgingly or out of a sense of obligation, but purely because one wishes to distribute from one's own resources in order to benefit others.

This may occur naturally in the love of a parent for a child, or of spouses for each other, but it is rare to see this sort of relationship in general society. Today's Sephirah encourages us to develop this trait in ourselves, expressed perhaps in holding a door open, in taking time to speak with a person who needs to talk, in donating to a tzedakah, or in dancing at a wedding.

Certainly, there must be healthy and halachic bounds to our sharing with others, but Chesed sheb'Chesed is about pushing the boundaries, building our desire to be kind to others.

The 16th of Nisan, in Jewish History
Moshe informed the Jews in the wilderness (Vayikra 23:9-14) that upon entry into Israel, they would be obligated to observe the prohibition of chadash. Under this law, the new year's grain is prohibited until a special omer offering is brought on the 16th of Nisan. In the absence of a Mishkan or Beit haMikdash, the arrival of the 16th of Nisan itself permits consumption of the new grain.

In line with this law, Yehoshua 5:9-12 informs us that the first time that the Jews who entered Israel from the wilderness ate from the grain of the land was on the 16th of Nisan, the day after they celebrated Pesach. The manna then stopped falling.

Day 2: Gevurah sheb'Chesed - Restraint in Kindness
Please see below for an introduction to the Sephirot, the mystical associations of each day of the Omer. Each day's dvar torah email will focus on the Sephirah associated with that day.

The Sephirah of the Omer's first week is Chesed. Chesed is kindness which motivates a person to give of himself - physically, financially, emotionally - to another.

However, the Sephirah of the second day of each Omer week is Gevurah. Gevurah is power, and we recall the lesson of Pirkei Avot 4:1: איזהו גבור? הכובש את יצרו, True Gevurah is self-control.

The combined Sephirah for Day 2 of the Omer is therefore Gevurah sheb'Chesed, "power in kindness". This title suggests a controlled kindness, a kindness which exists within healthy and appropriate boundaries.

Boundaries keep people from smothering each other, or stifling growth, or helping in undesired and undesirable ways. For example, as the gemara explains, one should not visit an ill person when he is feeling weak or in an embarrassing situation. In other examples, we are taught to avoid kindness which could be misunderstood or lead to impropriety.

Today's Sephirah reminds us that all good traits, even that of Kindness, must be carefully measured. Even HaShem bounded His kindness when He created the world, and we must do the same when we give to others.

The 17th of Nisan, in Jewish History
Bronya Kutzenok, born to a family of Tchernobler chassidim and married to a teacher, made aliyah in July 1921. She Hebraicized her name to Bracha Peli, and opened a library. Bracha eventually moved into bookselling, and then into publishing with her Masada Press. On the 17th of Nisan, in the year 1926, Bracha held the first "Hebrew Book Day". This became an annual event, morphing into today's "Hebrew Book Week" and "Hebrew Torah Book Week" celebrations, which are held in June.

Introduction to Sephirot
The "Sephirot", or "countings", are ten facets of Divine Creation. They are divided into two portions - the upper 3, and the lower 7. The lower 7 are:

Chesed (kindness);
Gevurah (power);
Tiferet (splendour);
Netzach (victory);
Hod (glory);
Yesod (foundation);
Malchut (monarchy).

We are taught that the 7 weeks of the Omer which take us from Pesach to Shavuot, from escaping Egypt to receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, are connected to these lower 7 Sephirot. The seven days of each week are also connected to these lower 7 Sephirot.

Thus the first week of the Omer is Chesed (kindness). The first day of that week is Chesed sheb'Chesed (kindness in kindness), the second day of that week is Gevurah sheb'Chesed (power in kindness), the third day of that week is Tiferet sheb'Chesed (splendour in kindness), and so on.

Then the second week of the Omer is Gevurah (power). The first day of that week is Chesed sheb'Gevurah (kindness in power), the second day of that week is Gevurah sheb'Gevurah (power in power), and so on.

But what do these terms mean? What is "kindness in power", for example?

Further, Rav Kook wrote that we are to study these Divine attributes in order to learn how to emulate G-d and draw near to Him. But what lessons can we draw from these attributes, for our own conduct?

Each day of the Omer, we'll publish a dvar torah exploring the message of the special Sephirah for that day, and what it can teach us for our own lives.

I may post the Sefirah part on the Daily Torah Thought blog, but I won't be posting the history component there. To sign up, email or follow @zichrondov on Twitter. The emails are free.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Rabbi's Pesach Stress

Why did your Rabbi cringe today when you approached him with that ladle?

Why does he start to tremble when people mention smoothtop stoves or granite countertops?

Is he ever going to have a normal expression on his face when someone mentions quinoa?

Yes, we are at the height of pre-Pesach rabbinic stress. It's all about the shailos (halachic questions).

I've written in the past about the stress that comes with answering shalos. It's hard to apply halachic principles to practical situations, and to be sure we have asked the right questions and understood the responses.

Certain types of questions are worse than others. Niddah questions, when a couple is having fertility problems. Yom Kippur fasting for people in poor health. And, yes, Pesach questions. We have established principles for leniency, but applying them is tough.

Example 1: "I inherited a used set of china from a relative who did not observe kashrut; can I kasher it for Pesach?"

For year-round use, the answer is easier; since the alternative to kashering would be to throw it out, and china is valuable, the argument for leniency due to hefsed (financial loss) is clear. But regarding Pesach, there is a rabbinic counter-argument: "You won't lose money if you save this china for year-round use." To which the congregant might respond, "But I don't have a nice set of china for the seder." Well, just how important is having such a set for the seder?

Example 2: "I was given a $50 bottle of Scotch for Purim. Can I include it in my sale of chametz?"

Following the view that one may sell bona fide chametz only in a case of financial loss, we now need to define financial loss. On the one hand, $50 is a loss – the congregant would never go out and spend $50 on liquor on his own. On the other hand, is it really such a loss? He pays annual tuition of $23,000 for his daughter's high school education, and he wouldn't blink if it was suddenly $23,050.

Example 3: "Can I drink Lactaid on Pesach? I get cramps from regular milk."

Assuming (as I believe major kashrut organizations do) that Lactaid poses a kitniyos problem, it is permitted for someone who needs to drink milk, and who cannot use regular milk. But define "needs to drink milk". And "cannot use regular milk", for that matter.

And the cases go on and on.

It's rare that I feel good about no longer being in the shul rabbinate, but pre-Pesach is one of those times…

Monday, April 2, 2012


A few years ago, I posted an article on-line about the gezeirah/minhag called "kitniyos", under which Ashkenazi Jews of the past 700-800 years have refrained from eating legumes, rice and assorted other non-chametz produce during the week of Pesach.

The practice originated out of concern for grain being mixed in with other products during harvesting or processing, as well as concern that permitting kitniyos products might lead to accidental permission of the chametz products they resemble.

My position in that post was that the kitniyos decree is founded upon solid logic (even if some of its modern extensions are not), and that it doesn't create great hardship (how many of us need to eat rice or beans every week?). [Where it does create great hardship, such as for those with extreme food allergies or for babies who need soy formula, kitniyos are approved.] So I argued against the popular resentment of this practice.

I didn't think my position was that radical, but others disagreed.

I re-visit this subject now in order to add a point: It seems to me that some of the resentment for kitniyos stems not from any hunger for rice, but from a basic lack of trust for rabbis, leading to automatic rejection of their statements and rulings.

Example: The other day I heard a rabbi cite a classic midrash regarding Sarah's biblical prepartion of "cakes" for guests; the midrash, basing itself on textual evidence, says that this event occurred on Pesach. Despite the textual evidence, I noticed someone nearby groan reflexively. Why? I think it was not because the midrash was particularly questionable, but because it was a rabbinic teaching.

There are several factors here.

The populism which dominates government,
the democratization of information,
the rise of critical thinking,
the revelation of scandal among religious and political leaders,
the proliferation of independent philosophical paths,

lead to rejection of leadership, religious and otherwise, Jewish and general. I don't view any of these factors as automatically negative, but the result is a thoughtless, knee-jerk rejection of leaders.

Add in external pressure from those who reject religion altogether and highlight its foibles at every opportunity, and the result is that religious dicta are challenged and rejected not on their merits, but because of their source.

I find this sad. There is much to debate in the arena of kitniyos, and much to be learned from the general challenging of rabbinic teaching. Rabbis who are expected to explain and defend their teachings will produce stronger Torah. But when the rejection comes from reflex rather than reflection, well – that which is poorly conceived is poorly received.