Thursday, October 23, 2014

How a mikvah scandal could happen: a thought

I hope you enjoyed your Yom Tov. For me - right before Simchat Torah, I found out about the mikvah scandal in Washington DC. That pretty much killed it for me.

In brief, for those who don't know: a veteran "Modern Orthodox" synagogue rabbi is accused of placing a hidden camera in his synagogue's mikvah, and committing related obscene abuses of his position. I spent Simchat Torah reeling at the multifarious horrific ramifications. [I omit his name not to protect him, but because seeing it makes me ill. If you need to know more, feel free to use Google.]

I can't understand this; I find this base betrayal of a community by its 25-year leader as incomprehensible as it is revolting. But I will venture the following thought, without claiming to mind-read the villain in this particular scandal: this sort of crime is enabled when people allow themselves to see others not as human beings, with feelings and emotions, but as objects which happen to populate their world. Ignoring people's feelings allows someone to say, "They won't find out, so where's the harm?"

Our weekly Torah portion, telling the story of the biblical Flood, speaks strongly against this objectification:
  • First, Bereishit 6:2 says G-d decided to destroy the world when powerful men "saw that the daughters were good, and took women from any they chose." The women were merely objects.
  • Second, this may be why G-d chooses to place all of the animals in the direct care of Noach's family for a year, rather than take care of them miraculously. Caring for others, immersing themselves in anticipating and meeting their needs, trains Noach's family to see others as feeling creatures.
  • And third, after the Flood, when Noach's son Cham displays no empathy in humiliating his intoxicated father (Bereishit 9), he is cursed for his insensitivity.
At the other end of the spectrum, one of the Torah's chief paragons of empathy is Moshe Rabbeinu. As a teenager, Moshe endangers his own life to save a Jew who is being beaten – and when he flees the country and arrives, friendless and impoverished in a new place, his very first act is to endanger himself to save Midianite women from harassment at a well. Moshe is worthy to give us the Torah, to be the first Rabbi – the empath who sees kinsmen and strangers, Jewish and non-Jewish, as human beings deserving of selfless friendship and protection.

May we eradicate the objectification of human beings that enables abuse. May we emulate Moshe's activist empathy. And may we teach our children this empathy, making ourselves worthy of the Torah that Moshe brought us, with which we danced last week, on Simchat Torah.

Monday, October 20, 2014

After scandal, a simple mikvah proposal

[Update 8:09 AM - Within a few minutes of posting this, I received a notice from a rabbinic friend, who informed me that the "Mikvah Emunah Society of Greater Washington" has already sent out a notice listing steps that they are taking. One of them is, "Male volunteers who assist MES with maintenance issues at the Wallerstein Mikvah will no longer be permitted to enter the mikvah without a woman accompanying them." Baruch shekivanti, although I believe that having a committee of women control access is a more practical method than accompanying, as outlined below.]

I am still processing the rabbinic scandal from Kesher Israel in Washington DC. (I am not hiding his name to protect him; I am refusing to type it because looking at it makes me ill.) I have many thoughts going through my head, but I'm not ready to post on it today. I'm not sure which ones are logical yet.

However, I do want to make the following proposal: No male should have unfettered access to a mikvah, even a supervising rabbi. 

Like any male, the rabbi should have neither the keys not the combination, whatever system of access is used. There should be a small committee of women who are licensed to let him in (and who will have the ability to inspect it after he leaves, should there be any concerns).

I say this as a rabbi who supervised a community mikvah for eight years, during which time we actually had two mikvaos – an old one, which needed halachic maintenance, and a new one, which needed the halachic attention that comes with a new mikvah. I had the keys and I used them, but in truth, I could have done everything I needed to do by working through a small committee of contact people.

Of course, men also use the mikvah, and the rabbi could have access like any other male during those times. But women should be in charge of making sure the mikvah is open during those times, and should be the ones to lock up, and check the facility as needed, afterward. [And where possible, the men and women should have dedicated changing areas, with the women's changing areas locked when the mikvah is in use by men. Where this is not practical, women should inspect the changing areas from time to time.]

This is not about accusing all rabbis, or all men, of impropriety and evil intent. Rather, it's like in hashgachah in the kosher food industry. Just as we recognize that a religiously observant business owner has a yetzer hara for profit, and therefore we don't allow him unfettered access to his food service establishment, so we must recognize that most males have a yetzer hara in sexual matters, and therefore we should not allow them unfettered access to a place where women are unclothed.

Does this make sense to you?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Shabbos App, lay off my Shabbos!

If you haven't heard about The Shabbos App yet, it's meant to modify the function of your smartphone to avert halachic problems involved in texting on Shabbat.

Here is the opening line of their "Who we are" paragraph:
We are a team of people including programmers, marketing professionals and Rabbis who want to make it easier to be Jewish and fully observant. Today, there are too many people leaving the fold because they find observant Judaism too cumbersome and outdated and it doesn't need to be.

It would be fun to discuss the ins-and-outs of their mechanisms, which are briefly described (sans important halachic details) on their website. Indeed, Rabbi Yisrael Rozen of Machon Tzomet has pointed out a gaping hole in their understanding of grama, here. But I am more interested in their premise: that people are leaving Judaism because halachah is cumbersome and outdated, as demonstrated by the inability to use a cell phone on Shabbos.

I can see ways in which the halachic system is lagging in dealing with new realities, but to me, turning off a cell phone for Shabbos does not demonstrate an outdated halachic system. Just the opposite, it demonstrates the need for the classic halachic system of Shabbos!

I think the Shabbos App is a terrible idea. Am I really the only Jew who was relieved to not answer a phone call or an email for three consecutive days on Rosh HaShanah and Shabbos? For me, if such a break did not exist, I would have to invent it - just as psychologists routinely recommend to their patients that they take time out from the demands of the world on a regular basis.

It's also important to walk away from the phone for a whole host of other reasons, beyond the scope of this post; take Louis CK's advice and turn off the phone!

So I find the "Shabbos App" idea most un-app-ealing. It's not what I want for myself, for my children, or for my environment. I shudder to think of spending Yom Kippur in shul, Succos lunch with friends, Simchas Torah dancing with the Torah or Shabbos afternoon at the park surrounded by texters. Please, please: lay off my Shabbos!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Roger Bannister and Team Naive (Derashah before Neilah 5775)

The Internet can be inspiring, even when the tales it tells aren't exactly true.

Listen to the following story, reported on the website by Dr. Jill Ammon-Wexler; a key part of it is false, but I still find it inspirational. Quoting Dr. Ammon-Wexler:[1]
For many years it was universally believed to be impossible for mankind to run a mile in four minutes. The athletes of the time held this belief, and the scientific world totally agreed.
But then on May 6, 1954 -- something remarkable happened. It seems there was one man who did NOT believe it impossible to run a “four minute mile.” In fact this man firmly believed this barrier could be broken ... and that he would be the one to do so. The name of this remarkable rebel was Roger Bannister -- and on that fateful day he did indeed run the first historically-recorded “four minute mile.”
Bannister’s amazing victory illustrates the power of one man’s belief in his own capabilities. But it is even more interesting that just six weeks later, Australian runner John Landy cut one second off Bannister’s record. And in the following ten years almost two hundred people also broke this so-called “impossible” barrier. Why did this happen? Because Bannister shattered the belief that the four minute mile was impossible. And when that belief fell … the 4-minute mile suddenly became possible.

Most of the story Dr. Ammon-Wexler tells is true:
  • Many authorities did believe that the four minute mile was physiologically impossible. For example: In 1943, an American newspaper's sports editor, Elliott Metcalf, used record quarter-mile times to demonstrate that a four-minute mile could not be achieved.[2]
  • Roger Bannister did firmly believe that this barrier could be broken – and on May 6, 1954, he became the first human being in recorded history to run a mile in four minutes.
  • And just weeks later, on June 21, John Landy did cut a second off of Bannister's record. And since the time Bannister showed the world it could be done, thousands more "four-minute miles" have been run; New Zealand's John Walker has done it 135 times, and American Steve Scott has run even more. High schoolers have done it, and Eamonn Coghlan did it after turning 40.

I find this story inspirational because of Roger Bannister's remarkable ability to envision success, shut out the cynics, and drive himself to achieve his goal. He knew that many others thought him naïve, and he overrode their doubts with his resolve.

In a world which finds our Torah's expectations alien and unreasonable, we need to take pride in our purported naivete as we pursue those expectations:
  • We need to take pride in our goal of Shmiras haLashon, of speaking only positively about each other.
  • Of giving 10% of our after-tax income to tzedakah.
  • Of rising early in the morning for shacharit, and spending serious time in Torah study during our day.
  • Of dressing in a way which honours our privacy.
  • Of observing Shabbos  - We now have the absurd authors of the Shabbos-App telling us that we must alter Shabbos and accept phone use, because it's just not possible to expect our kids to observe Shabbos without it.
  • And of completing our teshuvah, setting out this year to conquer the obstacles that conquered us last year.
We need Roger Bannister's ability to imagine a goal, and pursue it, even when the world thinks it impossible.

But an important part of that Bannister story was not true: Bannister was not alone; many athletes of the 1930's, 1940's and 1950's absolutely believed that the four-minute mile was achievable. A French runner set the mile record at 4:09 in 1931. Jack Lovelock of New Zealand moved it down to 4:07.6 in 1933. American Glenn Cunningham took it to 4:06.8 in 1934, and three years later British Sydney Wooderson dropped the record to 4:06. Then two Swedes took turns breaking the record multiple times, dropping it to 4:01.4 in 1945.  And there was John Landy, who headed for Finland in May 1954 for an attempt at the four-minute mark, only to arrive and hear that Bannister had already done it in England.[3]

Roger Bannister had confidence in his vision, but he also had something else: the company of other athletes. Bannister was not on his own; he was part of a team of people who were naïve rebels, insisting that it could be done, that they could do it.
That team is crucial; left to ourselves, it's all too easy to pull up short and say, "What, am I out of my mind?" Being the brooding hero who bucks the entire world is attractive when you're a teenager or when you spin webs and have Spidersense, but as we go through our adult, real-world existences, we get hit hard by life, and coping and hitting back requires the confidence of a team on our side. When we are surrounded by others who share our dreams and our goals and our confidence, then even our most questionable visions appear closer to reality.

Look at Avraham and Sarah, who were told to leave their land, their birthplace, the home of their fathers. They didn't go alone – they brought הנפש אשר עשו בחרן, which a midrash explains refers to like-minded people they had attracted. They brought Lot, even though he was part of that family they were supposedly leaving behind.[4] They brought Eliezer. They brought a network.

Or move forward millenia, to the end of the second Beis haMikdash. When the Romans were crushing the backbone of the Jewish nation by banning the study of Torah on penalty of brutal death, a sage named Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma was invited to come live in a town where they would pay him handsomely. As Pirkei Avos[5] tells the story, Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma declined the invitation, saying, "No matter what you pay me, I will never live anywhere other than a place of Torah." Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma's reply is hard to understand, though, since passages of gemara elsewhere[6] show that he lived in Rome! Was Rome, heart of the barbaric empire, a place of Torah?!

Interesting approaches to the problem are offered,[7] but one answer is simple: The same gemara that places Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma in Rome also places Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon, and his students, in Rome of that time. What Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma needed was not a city full of kollelim and batei medrash, but a team, a few like-minded people who shared his vision, who shared his naivete, who would inspire him and who would be inspired by him.[8]

Roger Bannister's dual message – ignoring the world's doubts and drawing on the strength of similarly confident people – is particularly important for us at Neilah.

In just a few minutes, we are going to say the most audacious words in the entire siddur. We've said them already today, but here they come one more time:
 “אלקי, עד שלא נוצרתי איני כדאי.” “My Gd, before I was created, I was not worthy.”
ועכשיו שנוצרתי כאילו לא נוצרתי.” “And now that I have been created, I am as though I had never been created.”
עפר אני בחיי, קל וחומר במיתתי.” “I am dust in my lifetime, how much moreso in my death.”
הרי אני לפניך ככלי מלא בושה וכלימה.” “I am before You as a vessel filled with shame and humiliation.”
And yet, “יהי רצון מלפניך ד' אלקי ואלקי אבותי שלא אחטא עוד!”
“But nevertheless, HaShem,
despite my degradation,
despite the fact that I know I have not lived up to my potential,
despite the fact that I know you want me to be so much greater than I am,
despite the fact that I violated pretty much every law this year that I apologized for last year, and the year before that,
despite all of those facts - May it be Your will, HaShem, MY Gd, Gd of MY ancestors, that I never sin again!”

It's remarkably, audaciously naïve – and that's just fine, because all of us will say it, all of us will commit to it, a team of runners who believe, running in parallel to break the four-minute mark that is teshuvah.

Bannister's story has one more part: As I said before, six weeks after Bannister broke the 4-minute mark, John Landy knocked a second off of the new record. And then, just a few weeks after that, the two ran head-to-head in a race in Vancouver. In what would become known as "The Miracle Mile", both men broke the four-minute mark; Bannister won with a time of 3:58.8 and Landy came in at 3:59.6.[9]

That Miracle Mile is the power of a team with a vision, and that is our power here, when we commit ourselves to the unreasonable goal of שלא אחטא עוד, that we never sin again. Let us, as a minyan, be that team with a bold vision, sharing our strength with each other and driving each other forward, to break that four-minute mile of teshuvah together, and earn a גמר חתימה טובה.

[4] See Chezi Cohen, אברהם ולוט – מפרדה לפירוד, Megadim 54 (Nisan 5773)
[5] Perek 6
[6] Sanhedrin 98a, Avodah Zarah 18a
[7] See, for example,
[8] Note the conversation between R' Chanina ben Tradyon and R' Yosi ben Kisma on Avodah Zarah 18a.