Monday, April 29, 2013

Carlebach Tyranny [a rant]

The following is not a rant against Carlebach Minyanim. I dance (well, shuffle) at them. I have led them. I instituted them occasionally when I was a shul rabbi.

This is also not a rant against minyanim that run overtime, as Carlebach Minyanim do. In the name of spirituality and fervor, I am more than happy to offer up the ten or fifteen minutes of my time that these take.

This is a rant against Carlebach tunes.

When I hear recordings of R' Shlomo Carlebach singing, I hear energy and life, fervor and inspiration. All too often, though, when I hear shuls sing Kabbolas Shabbos to Carlebach tunes I hear dirges [as well as chazanim who aren't sure when to go to the high part, and minyanim that split between high and low].

I hear people singing this tune because it's the tune they are supposed to sing, not because they feel anything.
I hear some people naively trying to match the tune with the words and phrases of Tehillim, and others giving up and just going with the flow.
I hear people mumbling their way through because they have been drafted into this service unwillingly.
And I hear loads of voices not singing as well, because hearing the same tune, week after week, is anything but inspiring. [If Kol Nidrei was a weekly experience, people wouldn't find that traditional tune moving, either.]

This is not true of all shuls, of course, or of all chazanim. But it is true of enough of them that I am writing this. [It is NOT true of any chazanim I have heard in the past several weeks – I've been sitting on this post for quite a while, and it was triggered by an experience that was not in the shul I normally attend.]

So here is my recommendation, for chazanim who want to motivate their communities: Sing! Sing just the ends of the paragraphs or sing the entire paragraphs, sing solo or lead a conga line! But please, please – sing a different tune, not a Carlebach tune. Sing the lively tune you heard at a wedding. Sing something relevant to that time of year. Sing a tune you've made up yourself [but clue people in first, perhaps] – but please, please, when the urge comes upon you to impose Carlebach tyranny upon the tzibbur, ask yourself: Is this the most inspiring way I can lead my community?

Thank you.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Reacting to Scandal: A guide for rabbis

As I mentioned in my previous post, there is a second half to my discussion of community scandal: What does a rabbi do once a scandal has broken in the community, spreading pain, gossip and hard feelings far beyond those people directly involved?

Here's what I plan to say to my group of young rabbis; what would you add? (Again, please omit all reference to actual events from comments, or I may need to delete them.)

When it's a scandal involving someone else
Minimize your public comments
* Remember the great advice I once received from a congregant: If only 10% of the shul knows about an issue, and you address it from the pulpit, you have now made it an issue for 100% of the shul. Make sure it's worth it.

* Showing you know the inside scoop never helps you, and can hurt you.

* People respect a closed mouth - and are far more likely to trust it when it does open.

Dealing with a shamed person
* Remember that for many people, you represent Gd

* You can offer friendship without offering endorsement, but it's best to do it privately

* Organize others to offer friendship, where appropriate

* Remember the good in the person; it should not be overridden

* Don't put the person in the spot, particularly by forcing a conversation before the person is ready

When it's a scandal surrounding your own error
What to say
* Full disclosure of the mistake

* Full, sincere apology - not "if I offended" or "for anything I may have said" [And if you think you are right, and the world thinks you are wrong, then you are outvoted and it's time to get objective counseling.]

* Don't attempt to justify it or explain why it's not as bad as people are saying

* If you must talk to the media, do it via press release to maximize the chance that your actual words will be heard, in context

Retreat from the spotlight
* The length of time depends on the harm done

* Never assume the worst is over

It's never safe to joke about it
* There is no statute of limitations

* It will never be funny to the victim

Monday, April 22, 2013

How to avoid scandal: A guide for rabbis

I expect to deliver a class this week, for young rabbis, on "Avoiding Scandal". It may seem like a relatively simple topic - don't do anything wrong - but I do have some thoughts based on my own experience, and things I wish I would have been told 17 years ago, when I was starting out.

Here are my major points:

1. You can't prevent other people from doing scandalous things, but you can institute policies for yourself, and your shul, to avoid or mitigate problems.

2.  Financial issues
* Make sure that everything involving donations and tax receipts is on the up-and-up;
* Make sure you know how to file your own taxes and claim your deductions;
* Make sure you know the rules regarding Benevolent Fund tax receipts;
* Ensure that your shul employs people legally;
* Know your level of responsibility to non-shul institutions with which you are involved.

3. Sexual issues
* Never meet with women or children unless someone else is able to observe you;
* Keep your wife informed of your meetings, and have her as a check on your judgment;
* Make sure your shul has a sexual harrassment policy;
* Make sure that people within your shul administration are up on "today's norms", which are not the same as those of a generation ago.

4. Disputes between members
* Be clear that your role as an impartial mediator is clear to the participants;
* Know when you cannot be impartial, and admit it;
* When the shul is involved as an institution, make sure all roles and interests are clear;
* Know when you are out of your depth;
* Do not let yourself be bullied into taking on something you cannot take on.

5. Make sure all members of the shul administration know who is the shul's official spokesperson - and it may not be you.

6. When speaking publicly
* Don't talk too much; it's the last sentence that gets you into trouble;
* Don't assume that people will assume the best of you, or know what you meant

7. If you aren't sure whether it's ethical or right, ask someone.

8. You are a religious figure and a public figure, and so there will always be those who want to catch your mistakes. Don't make their job easier.

I would love to hear your comments - but please avoid mentioning any particular scandals, as that might force me to delete your comment.

I also have a separate component: Responding to scandal once it has taken place. Perhaps I'll post that next.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Wanting to do the right thing

Today I saw a Forward article on a rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue in Maine, Akiva Herzfeld, who wanted to 'do the right thing' for Rabbi Goldfinger, formerly of a Reform temple, who had suffered a terrible brain injury and lost her ability to form short-term memories. Here's a brief excerpt:

“I tried to imagine what it would be like for me to be a female Reform rabbi. I thought, what if I were her and she was me? I would want him to ask me to lead services,” said Herzfeld, 34, who joined Shaarey Tphiloh, Maine’s oldest synagogue, five years ago. He spoke effortlessly, almost motionlessly, his red hair and pale skin standing out against stained-glass windows behind him. Goldfinger sat nearby, listening to the man who helped guide her spiritual ship of state. 

“Women’s issues in Orthodox Judaism are controversial,” he said bluntly, “but it was important to do this for her — for our synagogue to know that we have a rabbi coming and we will respect her, and realize that she continues to be a religious leader even if she doesn’t have the position of rabbi of a large synagogue.”

Goldfinger stared at him with a mix of amazement and deep gratitude.

“I never would have expected you to do that, and the fact that you did —” She paused, sniffling. “You are a bottomless well of empathy.”

Portland is home to a small, close-knit Jewish community where rabbis from the area’s one Reform, one Conservative, one Modern Orthodox, one nondenominational and one Chabad synagogue often work together. That’s exactly what happened on a Friday evening in November 2011, when Herzfeld and Goldfinger stood side by side in Shaarey Tphiloh’s cavernous sanctuary. Seats on both sides of the mechitzah, which separates the men from the women, filled with at least 100 people, far more than the handful or two the synagogue typically draws on Friday nights. With her children standing nearby, Goldfinger led parts of the Kabbalat Shabbat service welcoming the Sabbath, as congregants sang along, helping when her memory failed.

I was there, numerous times, when I was in the shul rabbinate. You want to help someone, you believe you should help someone, but the most meaningful help you can envision is halachically questionable. In a synagogue world where the rabbi is generally "to the right of" the community, this comes up all the time.

Shaking a woman's hand to avoid embarrassing her, or holding it by a hospital bed to comfort her...
Participating in a funeral service in a Reform temple...
Attending a wedding at which the food is not prepared under kosher supervision...

It can be hard to keep your moral compass, and to feel confident that you are making the right decisions. When is it appropriate compromise, and when is it selling out?

Over the years, I found myself asking a simple set of questions: To what extent am I doing this because I think this is the right thing? Of what influence is my desire for people to be happy with me? Might the latter be blinding me to other options?

Of course, answering these questions is harder than asking them...

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Mystical Bond between the Jew and the Land of Israel

I'll be delivering a shiur on Shabbos, Gd-willing, on "Israel through the eyes of a mystic". It's linked to an idea I have developed on this blog, in articles and in shiurim in the past, on Israel as a Motherland, but I think this shiur will provide a stronger way to look at the relationship between the Jew and the Land of Israel.

In honour of Yom haZikaron and Yom ha'Atzmaut, here are some of the sources – Rav Kook's thought on the unique, mystical significance of the Land of Israel. The translations are my own:

The importance of understanding our relationship with the Land of Israel on a mystical level
Rav Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook, Orot, Eretz Yisrael 1
ארץ ישראל איננה דבר חיצוני, קנין חיצוני לאומה, רק בתור אמצעי למטרה של ההתאגדות הכללית והחזקת קיומה החמרי או אפילו הרוחני. ארץ ישראל היא חטיבה עצמותית קשורה בקשר חיים עם האומה, חבוקה בסגולות פנימיות עם מציאותה. ומתוך כך אי אפשר לעמוד על התוכן של סגולת קדושת ארץ ישראל, ולהוציא לפועל את עומק חבתה, בשום השכלה רציונלית אנושית כי אם ברוח ד' אשר על האומה בכללה
The Land of Israel is not an external thing, an external national property, a mere means toward the end of national unification and reinforcement of the nation’s physical or even spiritual survival. The Land of Israel is an independent entity, bound to the nation in the bond of life, embraced due to internal inherent qualities. Therefore, it is not possible to identify the nature of the holiness of the Land of Israel, and to actualize this deep love for her, with any human, rational insight, but only through the Divine spirit which is upon the nation as a whole.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook, Orot, Eretz Yisrael 1
המחשבה על דבר ארץ ישראל שהיא רק ערך חיצוני כדי העמדת אגודת האומה, אפילו כשהיא באה כדי לבצר על ידה את הרעיון היהדותי בגולה, כדי לשמור את צביונו ולאמץ את האמונה והיראה והחזוק של המצוות המעשיות בצורה הגונה, אין לה הפרי הראוי לקיום, כי היסוד הזה הוא רעוע בערך איתן הקודש של ארץ ישראל.
Contemplating the land of Israel as an external value serving the purpose of uniting the nation, even when it comes to enabling the Jewish ideal in exile, guarding its form, strengthening faith and reverence and strengthening practical mitzvot in their proper form, does not produce durable fruit. This foundation is rotten, compared to the sacred strength of the Land of Israel.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook, Orot, Eretz Yisrael 2
לא שוללים אנחנו כל מין ציור והבנה המיוסד על ישרות ורגשי דעה ויראת שמים באיזו צורה שהיא, רק את אותו הצד ששיטה כזאת תחפוץ לשלול את הרזים ואת השפעתם הגדולה על רוח האומה
We do not reject any concept or understanding which is founded upon righteousness and intellectual sensitivity and awe of heaven, in any form, but only that aspect which wishes to deny the secrets and their great influence upon the national spirit.

The impact of the Land of Israel on the Jewish soul
Rav Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook, Orot, Eretz Yisrael 4
אי אפשר לאדם מישראל שיהיה מסור ונאמן למחשבותיו הגיונותיו, רעיונותיו ודמיונותיו, בחוץ לארץ, כתכונת הנאמנות הזאת בארץ ישראל. הופעות הקדש, באיזו מדרגה שהן, נקיות הן בארץ ישראל...
It is impossible for a Jew to be devoted and loyal to his thoughts, expressions, ideas and visions, outside Israel, in the way that he will be loyal in Israel. Manifestations of sanctity, on whatever level, are purer in Israel…

Rav Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook, Orot, Eretz Yisrael 7
מלאה היא הנשמה אותיות מלאות אור חיים, מלאות דעה ורצון, מלאות רוח הבטה ומציאות מלאה... כשנגשים למצוה, המצוה היא תמיד מלאת זיו חיים של כל עולמים, מלאה היא כל מצוה אותיות גדולות ונפלאות... בארץ ישראל מתגדלות האותיות של נשמתנו, שם מחשיפות הן נהרה, יונקות חיים עצמיים מזיו החיים של כנסת ישראל... אוירא דארץ ישראל ממציא את הגדול הרענן של אותיות החיים הללו...
The soul is filled with letters which are filled with the light of life, filled with intellect and will, filled with a spirit of vision and a complete existence… When we venture toward a mitzvah, the mitzvah is continually filled with radiance of life from all worlds, filled with great and wondrous letters… In Israel, the letters of our souls grow, there they reveal light, drawing independent life from the radiant life of the nation of Israel… The air of the Land of Israel creates the rejuvenated growth of these letters of life…

Rav Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook, Orot, Eretz Yisrael 5
הדמיון של ארץ ישראל הוא צלול וברור, נקי וטהור ומסוגל להופעת האמת האלקית...
The vision of the Land of Israel is clear and lucid, clean and pure and specially suited for revelation of Divine truth…

Rav Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook, Orot, Eretz Yisrael 3
יצירה עצמית ישראלית, במחשבה ובתקף החיים והמפעל, אי אפשר לישראל אלא בארץ ישראל.
Independent Jewish creativity, in thought and in the strength of life and in activity, cannot happen for the Jew other than in the Land of Israel.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Carter at Cardozo: What next?

This past Monday morning I received an email advising me that a student group at Yeshiva University's Cardozo Law School was planning to honour former President of the United States Jimmy Carter with an award for his years as an international mediator. I was stunned.

It isn't only that President Carter has done grievous harm to the State of Israel over the years, slandering it as an "apartheid state" and lending the stature of the American presidency to delegitimization of Israel. I can accept that someone might have a view that is different from mine. My problem is that Mr. Carter has been overtly dishonest and stubbornly close-minded on the matter of Israel. He has shut his ears to reasoned, lucid criticism. [See Professor Alan Dershowitz's brief list of criticisms of his work here; for an extensive account of President Carter's response and non-response to criticism of his book, Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid, see the footnotes here.] Is this someone to be honoured for peacemaking? How could students at a Jewish university not be aware of the cloud over the man's head?

Of course, it was immediately obvious that nothing was going to change. Realistically, no American university is going to rescind a student invitation to a former American President. Further, the university itself - as noted by President Joel here and by the Cardozo Board of Overseers here - does not control what a student organization does.

Nonetheless, I think there is something to be done, beyond this particular crisis. Education is required, perhaps via public awareness and education programs, as well as student activities. In a Jewish university, it should be obvious to all - Jewish and non-Jewish - that no award should be given to a person like President Carter.

This is true beyond Yeshiva University, in all of our high schools and elementary schools. The views of President Carter and his ilk are popular, and their unwillingness to consider all of the evidence and address their opposition directly is swept under the rug by their supporters. This is our competition, and our children are exposed to it all the time. May we re-double our efforts with our children and students, to make sure they are exposed to our perspective as well.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Squirrel at the Seder

I'm sure you've heard the old story about the bees going to the bar mitzvah [they need to wear yarmulkas so they aren't mistaken for Wasps].

Well, here's a new one: The squirrel at a seder!

Backstory: Our family eats leftover matzah all year round, but last week we decided to make room for our Pesach 5773 leftovers by disposing of the three pounds we still have from Pesach 5771. As an experiment, we put some out for the birds [to use as nest material if not food] - and landed this squirrel. He seems to has a taste for the unleavened, even though these pieces became soggy in a morning rain...

Monday, April 8, 2013

A Tommy Lasorda opener

I saw this story at Grantland on Sunday, and it struck me as a perfect opener for a derashah [sermon].

In the beginning … Tommy Lasorda was managing Spokane, the Dodgers' Triple-A affiliate. This was during the first Nixon administration. Lasorda was in his early 40s and somewhat slimmer, but already beginning to sneak food off his players' plates. Lasorda talked a lot about God. The Big Dodger in the Sky, he called him. The Big Dodger was Lasorda's lodestar, guiding him through a life that would make him the Dodgers' manager and, now, the team's greatest salesman.

Lasorda remembers the first time he invoked God in Spokane.

"I had a little left-hand pitcher named Bobby O'Brien," Lasorda says. "He was on the mound. And we've got the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning. I thought, Let me go out and talk to this kid. Let me go out and make him believe he can get this guy out.

"So I ran out to the mound and I said, 'Bobby, if the heavens could come apart right now and you could hear the voice of the Big Dodger in the Sky, and he says to you, 'Bobby, this is the last hitter you're gonna face on earth. You're gonna die and come with me …'

"I said, 'Son, how would you like to go facing the Lord? Giving him a base hit or getting this guy out?'"

O'Brien, the little left-handed pitcher, listened to the Last Pitch on Earth scenario and said, "Skip, I wanna go facing the Lord getting this guy out!"

"So I went back to the bench," Lasorda says. "Before I got in the dugout, he threw the ball and the guy got a base hit and two runs scored."

Lasorda was distraught when he strode back to the mound. "I'm walking and I think, Where the hell did I fail, man? The guy had him right where he wanted him. When I got there, I said, 'What happened, Bobby?'

"He said, 'Skipper, you had me so afraid of dying I couldn't concentrate on that hitter!'"

I could see this as an introduction to a derashah about what we focus on while davening, particularly on the question of whether prayer is about a relationship with Gd or about seeking fulfillment of our requests.

Or perhaps it could be an opener for a derashah on the way we develop tunnel vision as we go through life, and miss what we are really trying to accomplish. [Think Pharaoh, who completely misses what's going on in his country because of his tunnel vision regarding his throne and royal power.]

Or it could be a way to introduce the strategy of thinking about each moment as though it is our last. The strategy itself is too simple and obvious for a derashah - but an exploration of the positives and negatives of the strategy could be interesting.

What would you do with it?