Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Science and Religion and Explaining the Holocaust

From time to time I attend a funeral at which the officiant begins by quoting these lines from Ben Sira: “Seek not to understand what is too difficult for you, search not for what is hidden from you, be not over-occupied with what is beyond you, for you have been shown more than you can understand.”

I always wonder how secular people take that sentiment, which strikes me as so offensive to the modern ear. “That which is too difficult for me?” “More than you can understand?” What happened to modern science, to exploration, to the idea that mystery is only that which I have yet to comprehend?*

But it’s certainly a Jewish perspective. See the mishnah in Chagigah (2:1), that one should not investigate certain matters related to Gd. See the innumerable Jewish sources delineating the ways in which a human being cannot comprehend the infinite.

I believe that this issue of a defined limit to human comprehension is one of the major points that separate Science and Religion within Judaism. Much about them is reconcilable, but this point, I think, is simply one of disagreement.

The scientific approach takes as axiomatic that given enough data, I will be able to reach an accurate conclusion. New tools/formulae may be required for data acquisition as well as analysis, but those, too, are within my grasp.

The religious approach of Jewish tradition, on the other hand, takes as a given that intellect is not the sole actor on the stage of exploration; other forces define/shape/limit my comprehension. These may include my spiritual character, the alienness of the subject matter, or some deus ex machina intervening to put a halt to my understanding, but there are non-neural factors which affect my ability to absorb and analyze.

This is on my mind because last night, while packing up some old tapes, I found a recording of a parshah class Rav Aharon Soloveitchik taught at Yeshiva University in the late ‘80s. I think it was Fall of 1989, because I was in my Junior year in high school, and the parshah under discussion was Ki Tavo.

One day I’ll have to blog about those classes, and the impact they had on me. I was looking for direction, and even though I only attended a handful of those shiurim, and I can’t say I grasped everything being said, they were still a key experience. But enough about that for now.

Rav Ahron discussed the problem of reward and punishment, and Divine oversight and theodicy. In the course of addressing various questions, he came to the Holocaust, and he said:

Because if one tries to explain the Holocaust, he will be nichshal [stumble] in one of two things. If he will try to explain the Holocaust under the secular perspective he will be nichshal in blasphemy. And if he will try to explain from a religious perspective, and point a finger at certain people, why the Holocaust took place, then he will speak stupidity and gasus haruach [arrogance].

[Speak might actually have been spout – it’s hard to tell on the recording, and my mental recollection is spout.]

From a scientific perspective, this answer is entirely unacceptable. I have data about Gd, I should be able to determine how Gd could permit the Holocaust. But from the religious perspective of Jewish tradition, Rav Aharon’s answer makes perfect sense – there is, indeed, a non-intellectual limit on what I will ever comprehend, so that none of my answers, from any approach, will ever be accurate.

One could, of course, try to harmonize the Science and Religion approaches. One could claim that what Religion calls the limit on comprehension, Science calls a lack of data – we cannot understand Gd because we lack the tools to collect the relevant data.

But I don’t believe that this is what Religion is saying; Religion, in Jewish tradition, states definitively that human beings will never possess the tools to collect the data. We will simply live in philosophical limbo, trying to contend with our world while avoiding blasphemy, stupidity and arrogance.

[*The use of Ben Sira is all the more remarkable to me because non-Orthodox officiants are the ones who cite this passage. Ben Sira is not generally considered to be in the Orthodox liturgical canon, his presence in the Talmud notwithstanding.]

Monday, March 30, 2009

Mechitzah, Women Rabbis and Intermarriage: I prefer Challenge over Open-mindedness

This morning, visitors to our shul davened outside of the actual room where we were davening; they believed our mechitzah was too low.

My hackles rise, of course, at this sort of insult (and it is an insult*). I recall the Rosh Yeshiva from Yeshivas Mir of Eretz Yisroel who davened in our shul a couple of years ago on a trip through town, as well as numerous rabbonim from Lakewood, Brooklyn and Monsey, all of whom have understood the situation here and did not leave the room.

But I don’t bother trying to convince the ones who don’t get it. I don't believe in being infinitely open-minded. I believe people are correct to evaluate for themselves, assuming they evaluate based on hard Torah sources.

I was in their shoes this past week, in thinking about R’ Avi Weiss’s “Maharat” sort-of-rabbinic ordination of a woman, Sara Hurwitz.

I was in their shoes some time back when I watched an Orthodox rabbi give public honor to a donor in his shul event, with the donor’s non-Jewish fiancee present.

I'll admit that a little voice inside my head says, "You know, others don't agree with you, either." But, speaking rationally rather than emotionally, I feel no obligation to be open-minded or "to each his own" pluralistic just because others question me as well. Being a centrist doesn't mean you need to include everyone else in the middle as well.

Or to put it differently: The fact that all of us are vulnerable to challenge doesn't mean that all of us should accept everyone else's positions. That would create a cabal of self-protecting innovators, open-minded for the expedient sake of avoiding challenge.

All of the rabbis involved in these circumstances claim that we are acting on the basis of Jewish sources, that we have the weight of tradition behind our positions, that other Torah-loyal authorities should agree with our conclusions. So let those Torah-loyal authorities make their own evaluations, and come to their own conclusions - even if it's my own leniency they challenge.

The challenge is good, and even the disagreement is good; it should keep us honest.

How we express disagreement, Where we express disagreement, is another matter - but we all own the right and share the responsibility of evaluation and disagreement.

For that matter, the same goes beyond the rabbinate, to the way we conduct ourselves in our personal religious lives.

Any time you move away from the accepted norm – and “accepted norm” is in the eye of the beholder rather than any objective standard– you face that charge of being too open-minded, or, on the other side, too closed-minded. As the gemara (Menachot 40a) puts it, you become מן המתמיהין, among those who shock people and make them go Hmmm.

At that point, we must be open to evaluation based on the sources you claim on your behalf. If we can stand up to that test, good. And if not, then perhaps it’s time for a self-evaluation.

(*The insult is not that they decided to refrain from davening here; the insult is that they came into the building knowing the situation, just to daven outside that room.)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Come on, Rabbi, finish what you started

[This week’s Haveil Havalim, hosted by the inimitable Jack, is here!]

We all have on-going projects – cleaning out the garage, sitting on a community committee, losing weight, helping a friend cope with life – the natural accumulations of a life lived with a sense of purpose.

However, forced to believe that fatalistic adage, “No one gets off this planet alive,” we know that we’re going to die some day and leave some of those projects incomplete.

Just as responsible non-profits don’t run in the black, so too a life well-lived includes unfinished business. If you finish all of your tasks, you’re likely not working hard enough or thinking creatively enough.

The same is true for the rabbinate; a rabbi who leaves his pulpit with all of his projects complete is either not working hard enough or not thinking creatively enough. So I’ve always known that when I would leave, it would mean that some efforts would go unrewarded.

Nonetheless, it hurts to see a project fail, or even go on hold, because of my decision to leave. Today my mind is on my Community Educator project, which is going on indefinite hold until a new rabbi comes into town.

We started this project fourteen months ago, in January 2008. The goals were admirable – everything from raising the education level in our community, to attracting new families, to providing an evening “Hebrew High School” option for kids from public schools, to presenting community role models. Others had tried and failed, but we would succeed.

I collected a first-class committee who would stick with it and make the project a success. It wasn't a set of the usual suspects who volunteer for everything, and it wasn't a group of great financial means, but rather it was a collection of people who were committed to the vision of greater Jewish education, who attended classes and learned themselves, and who would put in the hours to make it happen.

We developed a good job description, specific enough to convey what we wanted but general enough to leave the reins to a quality couple to run the program. We found a perfect institutional structure, thanks to a local 501(c)(3) organization that was willing to act as an incubator. We identified generous, willing donors, who made the fundraising remarkably easy and stuck with the program even as the economy declined.

But we only started soliciting candidates last May, after the main rabbinic hiring season was over, and for many months we couldn’t find the right fit. It wasn’t until January 2009 that we found couples we felt were right for the job – and then, at the end of February, came the job offer from Toronto.

The roof fell in. Key donors, committee members and my potential replacement as chair of the committee debated pros and cons before deciding, just a few days ago, right after we had extended an offer to our best-fit candidate, to wait until a new rabbi would come in, to see what he would want to do with the program.

I can’t disagree with them; the argument makes sense, within a certain context. So the project is on indefinite hold.

As I said before, everyone goes with work unfinished, and it’s a sign not of inadequacy but of hard work and a commitment to productivity. To make the foolishly grandiose comparison, Moshe doesn’t make it into Israel, either. He finishes lots of projects, but some things are left for others to do.

Further, I know that many others have tried to launch such projects in communities like mine, and not come nearly as close to success.

But it still hurts to see all of that work – months of getting buy-in, of planning infrastructure, of covering practical details, of interviewing candidate familes – just to see it die. Had we been a few months ahead, this would not have happened. It hurts to shelve all of this, and to wonder whether it will be revived, ever.

After I came out of our last meeting, I got in the car and turned on the radio, to hear a Van Halen song clip that was surely sent my way by the Divine sense of humor: “Come on, baby, finish what you started.”

Gd likes to laugh at me, I find, but in this I know I’m not alone.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Birkat haChamah and Pesach: Antidotes for Hyperworship (Derashah Birkat haChamah 5769)

If you ever need a thought-provoking quote, go for Voltaire; he coined adages like, “Common sense is not so common,” and, “Originality is unrecognized plagiarism.” According to a few websites, Voltaire was also the author of this observation: “Behind every successful man stands a surprised mother-in-law. ”

This week, I’ve been mulling a Voltaire quote from a letter of his, in which he argued for the existence of a Creator. Voltaire contended that the universe itself is proof that there was a creator, and then he offered an additional argument, that Gd is necessary in order to ensure a just and fair society. He called Gd “the bridle to the wicked, the hope of the just,” and then he added these well-known words: “If the heavens, stripped of His noble imprint, could ever cease to attest to His being, If Gd did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.”

The Torah accepts Gd’s role as society’s unseen enforcer – note Kohelet’s reminder that there are always superiors watching what you do, and there are superiors watching those superiors as well – but it also goes one step further: Man needs Gd not only in order to protect society, Man needs Gd for the sake of Man, because we, as human beings, feel an inherent need to worship Gd.

Yes, Marx was not entirely wrong! Because we experience a natural need to find justice and plan in the universe, we must argue for the presence of a Judge, a Planner. We naturally embrace the existence of a Creator.

And more than that: The Torah believes that, as Voltaire predicted, where we cannot find a Creator, we do invent one.

The Torah says, אז הוחל לקרוא בשם ה', and Rashi and Rambam and others translate, “At that time people used Gd’s Name for mundane entities, labelling natural entities as gods.” Idolatry was not an attempt to get away from Gd – rather, it was an attempt to find Gd, to connect, through entities we could see and to which we could attribute power.

Witness the חטא העגל, the sin with the Golden Calf. The Jewish nation, camped at Sinai for almost six weeks without religious guidance, does not try to cut and run, does not imagine an existence without a Divine leader; rather, they seek to create a new conduit for reaching their Deity.
Man wants Gd.

At first blush, this concept of Man needing Gd for his own fulfillment sounds like a rabbi’s dream; what could be better than to have a congregation of people who actually want to believe, who actually yearn to be told there is a Gd?

But Judaism recognizes that this desire for Design is not entirely innocent; it may lead, in fact, to hyperworship and associated religious disaster, in two ways:

First, Judaism fears the Enosh phenomenon – that in Man’s search for meaning, we find an incorrect answer. As Enosh’s generation ignored the Unseen Gd in favor of visible, tangible proxies; as Jewish teens have, for decades, backpacked through the Himalayas in search of meaning they did not find in Hebrew school; so any of us might, to use the Torah’s words, gaze up at the heavens, at the sun, the moon, the stars, and decide to bow to their majesty.

Hence the Torah’s repeated admonitions against worshipping the bodies of the heavens.

Hence our insistence, when we pray, that we turn not to the stars and planets but to Gd.

And hence the Torah’s explicit harnessing of those heavenly bodies for its calendar and for its mitzvot, implicitly labelling those bodies as servants of Gd, carrying out Divine bidding.

In eleven days, on Erev Pesach, in a rare ritual, we are going to fulfill this last item, overtly identifying the Sun as a servant of Gd.

As we have discussed in various classes, as well as in the Pesach HaModia, we are on the verge of an event which occurs but once in 28 years in the Jewish calendar, Birkat haChamah, the Blessing of the Sun. Through calculations too complex for a derashah, we anoint this April 8th a day when the Sun returns to its original location from Creation. We step outside, we look at the Sun, and we declare, “Blessed are You, Gd, King of the Universe, who performs the deeds of Creation.” We will do this at 9:30 AM, communally, at the shul; those who cannot attend here can do it at home. It’s a simple blessing, found in your Pesach Hamodia. (For more, click here.)

This unusual Birkat haChamah is part of a more familiar pattern of mitzvot and berachot in which we explicitly declare that the Sun is created by Gd. We witness lightning, we hear thunder, we observe the ocean, we see great mountains, and we recite this same blessing labelling Gd the “performer of the deeds of Creation,” reminding ourselves that despite our longing to find Gd, we must always remember the error of Enosh’s generation, to recall that there is but one Gd.

And then there is a second danger associated with our longing for Gd, and that is the threat of complacency. Once we identify a Creator, a Planner, we risk leaving all action to this Gd as we remain on the sidelines.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch recognized a message regarding this risk, in the Torah’s apparent flip-flop regarding a מצבה, a stone monument.

In Bereishit we are told that our ancestor Yaakov, set up a monument of a single stone, to worship Gd. But in Devarim the Torah explicitly prohibits the מצבה, going so far as to say that Gd hates such monuments!

R’ Hirsch explained that a מצבה, made of just one stone, signifies simple admiration for Gd, devoid of any human contribution. Before the Torah was given, Man could, indeed, be a non-player, admiring Gd’s Creation and thereby worshipping Him. But once Gd charged us with fulfilling the mitzvot, we could no longer be non-players; we would be expected to assemble multiple stones and build a מזבח/altar for Gd.

As R’ Hirsch wrote, “Merely worshipping Gd in His Greatness and Allmight is not only a form of homage which is not pleasing to Gd, but, as our text expresses it, henceforth Gd “hates” any worship of His Greatness and Allmight which does not seek to express the moral submission of the whole of the human being to His Law, His Torah.” We are expected to be people of action.

Therefore, Gd commands that we learn Torah, that we keep kosher, that we give tzedakah, that we fill our lives with a form of worship which is far from silent, but which is active and demanding at every moment of our day.

Pesach is a perfect opportunity for this action; rather than commemorate the Divine miracles of the past with simple praise, we commit ourselves to the Torah and its mitzvot with the destruction of chametz and the consumption of matzah, educating our children and inviting in guests and reciting kiddush and making berachot – הלא זה יום טוב אבחרהו, this is the celebration which Gd desires, a celebration which commits us to Torah and forces us up from our recliners – or, in the case of the Seder, forces us into our recliners – as active participants.

The act of Birkat haChamah, of blessing the sun, can be a powerful moment. One of my few vivid childhood memories is of standing on the boardwalk in Long Beach, Long Island, the entire Hebrew Academy of Long Beach assembled, listening to our outstanding principal, Rabbi Friedman שליט"א, explain the mitzvah we were doing. I was in the second grade, and did not understand much – but I knew this was a special moment. Gd-willing, it will be equally special for our own children, and for us, this time around, and it will impress upon us once again the reminder that the sun is but a servant of Gd.

It is good that we long for Gd – but let us use Birkat haChamah to reinforce our awareness that the universe’s marvels are only servants to the Creator. And then, let us use the Pesach Seder that night to reinforce our awareness that praising Gd’s wonders is insufficient – we must also commit to action.

Or to borrow a line from the UJC/Federation’s new campaign ad: This Pesach, and every Pesach, symbolism is not enough. We must also act.


1. Yes, Marx still makes me uncomfortable.

2. Voltaire is credited for that mother-in-law line here. Others credit Hubert Humphrey.

3. Voltaire's line about inventing Gd comes from a letter to the author of The Three Impostorsl it is found in French and English here.

4. Kohelet's line is 5:7; the Enosh reference is Bereishit 4:26. See also Rambam's Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avodah Zarah 1:1.

5. As an example of the way we specify that we are not worshipping sun, moon and stars, the prayer from the end of the Simchat beit haShoevah, in the Mishnah found on Succah 51b.

6. Hirsch's explanation of matzeivah is found in his commentary to Devarim 16:22; I used the Grunfeld translation.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A rabbi's Pre-Pesach 2009 list

A Mother in Israel posts her list of Pesach to-do items.

The Talmid, commenting on a recent post of mine, mentions his own pre-Yom Tov lists.

So here's my own pre-Pesach list - it doesn't include derashot and shiurim for Pesach, just the other types of fun that rabbis can have in preparing for Pesach. It's a random list of chores, assembled over the years:

* Arrange barrel for burning of Chametz in the shul lot
* Prepare materials and documents for the sale
* Have custodian clean out the storage room behind the stage from all chametz
* After sale of chametz, put up "Sold" signs on shul areas containing chametz
* Prepare letter re: post-Pesach Chametz for mailing
* Arrange Pesach kiddush cup and bottle of wine for shul
* Put flyers for post-Pesach events into Pesach bulletin
* Talk to Sisterhood about selling their chametz
* Update yardwork file to list days when landscapers can't come
* Put Pesach schedule and bulletin on website
* Remind ______________ to delegate me to sell her Chametz (she wants to be reminded)
* Arrange Chametz Drive for Second Harvest
* Set up schedule to learn for Siyyum Bechorim
* Fill out forms for the Shul's chametz
* Arrange pre-Pesach Friday night dinner, if there will be one
* Make sure trash cans will be emptied pre-Bedikah at Shul
* Annual pre-Pesach letter announcing which Jewish stores have, and have not, sold their chametz
* Figure out a plan of which Sefer Torah to use when and roll when. Can do well if you start with 1 at Pinchas, 1 at Emor, 1 at Bo.
* Remind mashgiach to take care of Weis and JCC sales
* Arrange sales, for the 13th and 14th of Nisan ,with our purchaser
* Set up Yizkor display for last days of Yom Tov; change back afterward
* Announce men's Mikvah times for Erev Pesach
* Prepare a pre-Pesach “cleaning for Pesach” class
* Contact people to see if they need Maos Chitim
* Prepare Haggadah class for Shabbat haGadol
* When placing the Matzah order, ask them for the wholesale price and confirm what it is
* Remind people to check new clothes for Shatnez, and to clean out Chametz from lockers/Shtenders
* Check which kiddush items are, and are not, Mezonot (since so many are potato starch)
* Clean out shul lockers from chametz
* Renew Eruv Chatzeirot
* Print out Omer chart to post in shul
* Get speakers for Shavuot night program - Adults and Teens

Yes, I do know how to delegate - but at this time of year, with so much going on, I take the shortcut and do it myself. Delegating is healthier, but I can't afford the time in the run-up to Pesach.

Now, if I could only find what I did with the list of items the esteemed Rebbetzin wants me to do... it was here somewhere...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The New York Times on Birkat haChamah, the “Blessing of the Sun”

The New York Times on Birkat haChamah, The Blessing of the Sun, April 8, 1897:


Rabbi Arrested for Observance of an Ancient Talmudic Ceremony In Tompkins Square.


No Permit Had Been Thought Necessary for the Gathering and Policeman Foley Could Not Understand What It Meant – Occurs Once in 28 Years

Orthodox Hebrews in every part of the world celebrated yesterday what is familiarly known among them as “the new sun.” The festibal comes once every twenty-eight years, on the fourth day of the first week of the Hebrew month Nisan, corresponding practically to the month of April. The celebration in New York was spoiled for some hundreds of people by the interference of two park policemen with a gathering in Tompkins Square, the arrest there of Rabbi Wechsler, and the flight of Rabbi Klein.

See the whole piece here, in the New York Times archive.

My favorite quote:
The celebration is rather a complicated matter to explain to anybody. Rabbi Klein’s knowledge of English is slight, while Foley’s faculties of comprehension of matters outside of police and park regularions and local events are not acute. The attempt of a foreign citizen to explain to an American Irishman an astronomical situation and a tradition of the Talmud was a dismal failure.

Gotta love it.

And the result:
Both became excited, and the people who clustered around them increased the confusion. When Foley was told in broken English about a “new sun,” he was doubtrful whether it was an attempt to guy him, or whether some new infection of lunacy had broken out on the east side. His demonstrations became so threatening that Rabbi Klein understsood that he was in danger of being arrested and clubbed, and chose the easiest and fastest plan of escape.

Only in New York, folks.

[For specifics on this mitzvah, see my three other posts linked under Birkat haChamah.]

What’s so bad about Holy War?

The New York Times testifies:
A soldier, identified by the pseudonym Ram, is quoted as saying that in Gaza, “the rabbinate brought in a lot of booklets and articles and their message was very clear: We are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the non-Jews who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land. This was the main message, and the whole sense many soldiers had in this operation was of a religious war.”

On which Paul Raushenbush at Beliefnet.com editorializes:
Hmmm, moving from a war of necessity to a war of choice and one viewed through the axis of good vs evil. Sounds familiar to me. I am near despair over the misguided fanaticism of the religious right whether it is Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Hindu. Enlightened religious communities and secular humanists must join together in Israel, Palestine, America, India, Pakistan, and throughout the world to counter the dogma of war and domination that we see in religious fundamentalists throughout the world.

The Times and Beliefnet articles are both built upon the same assumptions:
1. Holy War means a war fought out of religious belief that I should kill the enemy, and
2. Israeli soldiers motivated by their rabbinate fight for that "Holy War."

But they miss the truth; their anti-Israel jingoism ignores nuance.

To the Iranians, perhaps, religion means an aggressive "Death to the Infidel." To the Jew, though, the religious argument means a religious imperative to remain in Israel. We could do that in peace, if they would let us alone. We don't fight for the sake of religion. We stay for the sake of religion; we fight for the sake of survival.

Israel’s wars, since before 1948 and long before there was any so-called Occupation, have been about that necessary self-defense and survival. Belief motivated Jews to remain in the land; Necessity motivated them to fight back.

When Jews living in Hebron and elsewhere were attacked by Arab marauders in the 1920s, they organized a military response and fought back. Jews chose to stay because of religion, and then to fight so that they could live.

Note that Israel has not launched aggressive wars. If the imperative for Israel's army were religion, they would attack offensively. Instead, Israel only reacts to being attacked.

Contrast this approach with Arab actions, and Muslim actions in Europe, Southeast Asia, and around the world. They do not need to fight against Jews, and against the West. No one is coming after them, no one is trying to harm them, to take away their sovereignty and autonomy. But they go pursuing “the enemy,” the demonic Jew and his Western allies. Their war is built on the foundation of religious belief, without any element of self-defense beyond the claim that the existence of a Jew in dar-al-Islam is an inherent threat to their existence.

What Israel is doing may more fairly be termed “Holy Self-Defense.” Arab aggression, on the other hand, is “Holy War.”

For more in the same ugly vein, see CNN here. But then be sure to see Jack here.

Monday, March 23, 2009

I won't miss the parsley

[The latest Kosher Cooking Carnival is here!]

I know I will miss many, many aspects of the shul rabbinate.

I’m having a hard time mentally separating from some of the responsibilities of my Rabbi life; I love what I do.

More, saying ‘Goodbye’ to so many good friends is hard. (Yes, we’ll keep in touch, but Facebook etc are not the same.)

Also, to be frank, much of my sense of self-worth is tied into the things I do, particularly the pastoral role. I expect I will continue to be involved in chesed, but it will not be with the intensity of a shul rabbi. So leaving the shul rabbinate is difficult.

Still, there are many roles, great and small, that I will not miss.

The ‘great’ items include Yamim Noraim, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. I have never had the experience of davening in a shul like any other mispallel (congregant) on those days – I went straight from yeshiva into the rabbinate. I wonder what it’s like to simply come to shul to daven, without worrying about leining, shofar, speaking and inspiring people, the pesichos, the gabboim, the air conditioning and the lights timers, etc.

Another of the ‘great’ items is the psak (legal authority) involved in running a community. Knowing that everyone’s kitchens, everyone’s Shabbat-carrying, everyone’s taharat hamishpachah (family purity) depends on my attention to halachic detail weighs heavily on my shoulders.

A third ‘great’ item is the derashah responsibility. I love feeling that I’ve completed a solid dvar torah that has a good message, that is well-written, that has a good chance of inspiring people - but I have a hard time with the pressure of doing that week-in, week-out. Thursday afternoons are very tough.

On the other hand, those great responsibilities come with great satisfaction and fulfillment, and I know I’ve grown from them.

But then there are the smaller matters, day-to-day things which I will be glad to leave to someone else’s neuroses. Examples:
• Making sure the lighting timers and A/C are set for Shabbat and Yom Tov
• Sending the landscapers a schedule of which days they shouldn’t come – and making sure they stick to it
• Notifying custodians of dead light bulbs, or changing them myself; ditto for clocks with dead batteries
• Bug-checking the kiddush parsley and strawberries
• Unlocking the Aron Kodesh for Shabbat, and rolling the Sifrei Torah to the right place
• Ensuring there’s a minyan twice each day
• Fielding complaints about seating for Yamim Noraim
• Making sure the shul is locked/alarmed each night
• Correcting chazanim and baalei keriah
• Making sure the custodian orders Shabbat toilet paper
• Setting up zmanim (times) for davening, etc.
• Dealing with supermarket bakery personnel who once violated the kashrut supervision rules and now won’t look me in the eye
And so on.

Not all shul rabbis need to do all of these things – shuls often assign house committees and gabbaim to manage some of these items – but all shul rabbis have some version of this list. (Go ahead, give your rabbi a hug and tell him you know what he handles every day.)

So the next time I question my decision, I’ll just look back at that list. I’ll miss a lot of the responsibilities, I’ll miss the people, but I won’t miss the parsley.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


[Haveil Havalim is here!]

I’ve been having a hard time writing this post.

I’ve been thinking about how I would write it for a couple of weeks now, and getting nowhere.

The topic is an emotional one for me, and I have a great deal to say; it’s about news that brings me both excitement and joy, and disappointment and misgivings. It’s the sort of news that defines, and yet defies, the term bittersweet.

I can’t even begin to talk about it. I get upset when I talk to people about it locally… and so do they, for the most part.

Part of me always knew this day would come, that it had to happen, that I couldn’t possibly not end up doing this at some point. But part of me always insisted that the day would never come, that all of the pieces would fall into place so that this could be just a nightmare, a monster that never comes out of the closet, never does more than swipe a paw out from beneath the bed.

I suppose almost every rabbi goes through this at some point in his career, unless he dies on the pulpit. Some of them are probably overjoyed to get to this point, but I think many of them have the same feelings that I have.

It feels like the right thing to do. It feels like something I must do. It feels like a decision that will enable me to do a great deal to help people, albeit in a way that is different from the way I’ve been doing that for the past dozen years.

What a thrilling prospect. What a scary prospect.

Okay, here’s the deal: I’mretiringfromtheshulrabbinateandmovingtoTorontotoheadanewBeitMidrashprogramforYeshivaUniversityandTorahmiTzion.

There, I said it. I’m glad that’s out of the way.

Yes, I’m moving to Toronto, Gd-willing, this summer, to become “Senior Scholar” for a Yeshiva University/Torah miTzion Beit Midrash. I will be mentoring the members of the Beit Midrash, giving shiurim in the Beit Midrash and in the community, getting involved in the broader Jewish community and its institutions, and more.

It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be meaningful. It’s going to be a way to strengthen an already-thriving Jewish community. It’s going to be a new way for me to grow and develop whatever talents Gd has given me.

But, boy, is this transition going to be hard.

Do I have to change my blog name to The Ex-Rebbetzin's Husband?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Is religion "private" if your family sees you?

[ I have some big news, but I'm not ready to blog it just yet.]

One of the fun side-effects of blogging is that it makes periodic self-examination fairly easy; like a diary/journal, it allows me to go back to where I was a year ago and look at what I was thinking.

Technically, I can always do that - I have computer files with my derashot and shiurim going back to 1997 - but the blog makes it even easier. To see where I was last Pesach, I just click the sidebar Label, Pesach, and I'm there.

This morning I took a minute to re-read a derashah I delivered last year, on Pesach, regarding private (צנוע) religion and public religion. It was a reaction to the Inquisition of then-presidential candidates Clinton and Obama at Messiah College (a topic I also blogged here).

I talked about our preference for private religion, in terms of not making our religious practice a display for others, while acknowledging that Judaism finds both approaches to religious practice appropriate at different times. When it comes to teaching our children, though, we are instructed to be public, particularly at the Seder. "והגדת לבנך - You shall tell your children," as the Torah admonishes us repeatedly.

In a comment on that derashah, Tzipporah contends that addressing one's family is actually private, rather than public.

Her point is important: Should our spouses, children, siblings, parents, be a natural part of the religious lives we consider to be most private and personal?

I'd suggest not.

As Rav Soloveitchik noted so articulately in his 1964 essay, Confrontation, there is a natural gap between individual human beings, no matter how close we are, because no one can truly know the thoughts, emotions, feelings of another. Shared experiences are not the same as shared lives and shared DNA.

The logos, the language we employ to bridge that gap, to communicate agreement and disagreement, comparison and contrast, is an inherently flawed medium. Language is a product of our context, our life history, our interactions, and so our words are loaded with meaning which we cannot convey to others, no matter how hard we try.

This gap generates a deep-seated loneliness in ever-social Man, a loneliness which can be filled only by a Gd who is יודע מחשבות, One who knows our very thoughts. Religion provides a context for that relationship with Gd, a way to communicate with the Deity who knows us.

In this vision of Religion, any human being other than myself is not a partner in that one-to-One relationship, is not privy to the information conveyed between me and my Creator. And so, any other human being is public.

So to me, any religious action performed before another human being - including one's spouse, one's siblings, one's parents, one's children - is inherently public.

And so the deepest parts of our religious experience (outside of training our children, outside of the Seder and similar educational opportunities) really should be more concealed than revealed, even in the case of our families.

What do you think?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

CNN’s Nidal Rafa reveals her anti-Israel hatred for the world to see

Missiles, rocket fly between Israel, Gaza
Five Palestinian militants were wounded, one critically, when an Israeli missile hit a car in downtown Gaza City late Sunday, the sources said.
And one man was killed and seven others -- including three Hamas militants -- were wounded when Israeli aircraft attacked two cars early Sunday east of Rafah, in southern Gaza, Palestinian security and medical sources said.

Hebron mayor: Jewish settlers are terrorizing my city
HEBRON, West Bank (CNN) — Jewish settlers are on a “terror” rampage in the West Bank city of Hebron, angry over the Israeli military’s seizure of a disputed home, the city’s mayor said Thursday.
“What’s happening in Hebron is terror by the settlers,” the mayor, Khaled Osaily, told CNN’s Nidal Rafa. “They are attacking houses, setting fire to property and injuring people.”

Those are only a couple of the many stories run with contributions from Nidal Rafa, one of CNN’s Middle East producers, over the past several years.

Someone sensitive to potential bias might question the “Palestinian security and medical sources” cited in the former article, as well as the mayoral assessment in the second article.

That sensitive person would likely be silenced by others who would point to the CNN brand and say, “CNN is not some small news outlet without journalistic integrity and oversight!”

But that sensitive person would be quite correct; Nidal Rafa has now exposed, for all the world to see, her ugly hatred of Israel. In a video available here, Ms. Rafa does all but throw shoes at former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Danny Ayalon. She abuses him, shouts profanity, refuses to allow him to respond, and generally makes a fool of herself, all in the name of the Palestinian cause.

Ms. Nadal refuses to recognize the United Nations when it fails to serve her propaganda needs. Ms. Nadal ignores history, particularly the point that Arab anti-Jew terrorism preceded any “occupation” in the West Bank or Gaza. She is interested only in assaulting the Jew standing before her.

Why did she crack that day? Who knows – I’m just grateful that Tom Gross was there to catch it.

Word is that Ms. Nadal has now been summarily canned. ‘Bout time, folks.

Amortality: A Consequence of Early Mortality

Catherine Mayer writes in Time about one of Ten Ideas that are Changing the World: Amortality. She writes, “The defining characteristic of amortality is to live in the same way, at the same pitch, doing and consuming much the same things, from late teens right up until death.” Ms. Mayer observes that this is more than a result of boomer age-resistance; it’s actually a separate (if related?) phenomenon.

I have noticed this “amortality” in myself, although I have tended to write it off as a product of life on the early side of middle age. I have assumed that my desire to pretend I am still in college is either some form of mid-life crisis, or some immaturity I will outgrow, or both.

But, in any case, I think Amortality is a consequence of Early Mortality, of the death-cult envelope in which every member of the developed world now lives.

From the earliest ages, we are super-aware of death and its causes:

• Posters in our local pediatrician’s office show pictures of slim children and obese children, and list the statistical likelihood of illness and death for each.

• The ebullient BNL song, “If I had a million dollars, I would buy you a fur coat, but not a real fur coat, that’s cruel – I would buy you an exotic pet, like a llama or an emu – We wouldn’t have to walk to the store, we’d take a limo ‘cause it costs more” is sadly irrelevant. If I had a million dollars, I’d stick it in a CD or a mattress and wait for the market to improve, so that I’d be able to afford long term healthcare.

• News websites feed our hunger for statistics as well as fear, plugging us with numbers on the top ten causes of death in our country, state and hometown, broken down by age, demographic and social status.

We worry about diet, exercise, retirement accounts, long term care insurance, war and terrorism, global warming, social collapse, anxiety disorders.

We start forestalling death in our youth, with everything from college-prep pre-schools to pre-arranged funerals.

So it’s only natural that, with death constantly on our mind, we live every moment to its desperately youthful fullest, to the best of our ability, resisting any change, any concession to the grave. We are afraid to do otherwise.

The irony is that this desperate amortality is, itself, a contributing factor for those anxiety disorders. As the Talmud teaches, one who is forever worried about tomorrow’s bread has no life at all.

We might do well to acknowledge the grave even as we forestall it; acceptance tends to be a healthier option, physically, than denial.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Does CNN.com believe Israeli victims do not deserve names?

The following two young Israeli policemen were killed by terrorists this week:

David Rabinowitz
David was born in Kiryat Shmona and grew up in Kiryat Bialik, north of Haifa. He attended the ORT Dafna high school and the Israel Air Force technical school. He served in the Air Force as a mechanic. At the age of 25, while a student at Haifa University, he joined the Israel Police. David's brother Sharon relates that he was a sensitive person who enjoyed his work. Every free weekend he would visit his parents to help them. He was particularly devoted to his mother. "He so loved to help people," Sharon said, "and was killed trying to help." David was divorced. His son Eden recently celebrated his bar mitzva.
Warrant Officer David Rabinowitz was buried in Haifa. He is survived by his son Eden, 13, his parents Moshe and Ruby, and eight siblings.

Yechezkel Ramzarkar
Yehezkel was born in India, near Mumbai, as the eldest son, and his family immigrated to Israel in 1967 and settled in Yavne. He moved to Maale Ephraim after his marriage.
Dani Biton, head of the Maale Ephraim local council, described Yehezkel, a policeman for 30 years, as a modest man who devoted himself to raising his three children, and to his work as a police officer. An officer in the West Bank traffic department described Ramzargar as a professional and experienced policeman, who was always courteous and polite, a good friend and colleague.
Yehezkel's brother Menashe said that he was mother and father to his children, to whom he gave everything. "Yehezkel had two loves, his family and his country. He was a single parent for 10 years. Despite the difficult police work in shifts, he dedicated every free moment to his children."
Senior Warrant Officer Yehezkel Ramzarkar was buried in Yavne. He is survived by his three children: Alon, 23, Elior, 19, and Elinor, 16, as well as his mother and eight siblings.

The above information came from Israeli's MFA website; you can find more in the links above.

Now, here's what CNN.com had to say about their murders:
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Police searched Sunday for gunmen who opened fire on an Israeli police vehicle in the West Bank, killing two officers, according to Israeli police.
The shooting took place at 8:20 p.m. (1820 GMT) on the 90 Road in the Jordan Valley, in the West Bank, police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld told CNN.
"The police and IDF (Israel Defense Forces) are conducting a search for the attackers in the direction that they fled. They are working on an operational and intelligence level to arrest those who carried out this attack," said Rosenfeld.
An emergency vehicle found the victims, said Rosenfeld. It was not immediately clear whether the emergency vehicle was responding to a report of the incident.
Witnesses told CNN that all traffic in the area was blocked as authorities conducted their investigation.

There was nothing about the victims, and there was no follow-up about them, or their families.

In contrast, when an Arab tried to murder policemen with a backhoe ten days earlier, this was the opening line of CNN's article:
-- A Palestinian man from East Jerusalem rammed a construction vehicle into a police car before he was shot and killed, Israeli police said Thursday.
The driver was identified as Mir'ei El Radida, 26, from the Beit Hanina neighborhood, police said. He was married with one child.

Every terrorist gets his lifestory broadcast and analyzed, but the good guy victims are anonymous.

Monday, March 16, 2009

A Cap on Synagogue Membership

This hardly seems like an economic time when any synagogue – or any dues-collecting organization – would want to cap its membership. Nonetheless, I think rabbis and synagogues would benefit from a formal by-law restricting the number of synagogue members.

This is probably a good time to mention that I, like all synagogue rabbis, love working with people, helping people, etc, and that synagogues benefit from a diversity of members and multiplicity of opinions.

The problem, though, is that every new member introduced into a synagogue
a) reduces the synagogue’s effectiveness in reaching people and
b) adds exponentially more work for the rabbi.

First, a larger membership reduces the synagogue’s effectiveness:

I spent a year as a baal keriah for a shul with 13 families, I spent four years as rabbi of a shul with 70-ish families, and I have now been rabbi, for eight years, of a shul with 220-230 families. There is no question in my mind that an increase in membership results in a sense that people are colder, more cliquish and more distant.

There are published studies on the way human beings interact in different-sized groups. Among their discoveries is that after a certain number, groups break down into sub-groups, rather than interact as a whole. People find enough “like” people, so that they cease meaningful interaction with those who are sufficiently different, and instead limit themselves to a cluster of like-minded friends.

So after shul, at kiddush, you’ll find people gathered together, talking about their lives, and only waving, smiling and saying a quick “Good Shabbos” to those who are not in their sub-group. They’ll visit certain houses for meals and invite certain families over more frequently, they’ll participate in certain projects with others, they’ll attend programs which people in their sub-group attend.

There are things a rabbi can do to influence this reality – speeches about mingling tend to be less effective, actual projects that involve mingling do better – but it’s really just human nature.

And second, each new member adds exponentially more work for the rabbi.

A good rabbi knows the names, careers and stories of his members’ extended families. He cares about their lifecycle events, asks after them, welcomes them when they visit town. A good rabbi is involved in his members’ lives, to the extent that they encourage it; he calls, visits, celebrates and commisserates. And with every new family, this adds to his responsibilities.

As I said, rabbis enjoy doing all of this – it’s not a burden, or we wouldn’t be in this field in the first place. A rabbi who doesn’t like people is out of the rabbinate fast (or ought to be, anyway).

But, realistically, the more time the rabbi invests in relationships, the less time he will be able to invest in classes, programming, community work, administration, etc.

But here are some problems with having a Cap:
1. The catch is to find a membership number that enables the shul to function vitally, robustly. I know of no way to do that with any real precision; there is always a desire for more.

2. Another catch is the question of what we do for the people who are left out in the cold. In a New York/New Jersey, that’s not a problem; there are plenty of spin-offs and breakaways. I know of one shul in New Jersey that actually has a cap, and the rabbi has helped people form breakaway shuls. But outside of major Jewish population centers, that’s a lot harder.

3. A third problem is the ego issue, for both the rabbi and lay leadership. People take pride in the size of their shul – and they also have a hard time dealing with competition.

4. And, as I mentioned at the start, economics pushes us to take in as much money as we can these days, and, in truth, any day.

So for these practical reasons, I don’t think capping membership is the wave of the future. But, at the same time, it really should be.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Prayer, beyond the Siddur

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here!]

What's on my mind this evening: Thinking Outside the Siddur.

I'm teaching a class Thursday night, How we pray, but it has almost nothing to do with the siddur. Rather, I want to look at some of the non-siddur ways we pray. I'm still at the beginning of developing this class, but I like the ideas I'm formulating, so I thought I might share some of the concepts here for thought and feedback.

For the purpose of this discussion, I will define "prayer" not as speaking with Gd, but more broadly: communicating with Gd, verbally and otherwise.

The Torah provides types of prayer that bear little resemblance to the siddur style of davening (although some of them do influence the siddur):

We find korban, a generous act, giving of ourselves. (From Kayin/Hevel to Noach to Avraham to Har Sinai to the Mishkan)

We find song, an artistic act, creating expressions of lyrical and/or musical beauty. (From songs of thanks to the service-tied song of the Leviyyim to King David's reflective Tehillim)

We find monuments, a public act, visibly demonstrating loyalty to Gd. (These are most controversial, because the Avot create them, but then HaShem later prohibits them.)

We find meditation, an internal act, less about prayer and more about developing awareness. (The most commonly cited example is ויצא יצחק לשוח בשדה, but I am not convinced this is actually meditation. R' Aryeh Kaplan, of course, has much on this.)

And we find siguf and fasting, self-denial which aids us in returning to Gd. (Ninveh, Esther. Perhaps Kayin's fate of נע ונד תהיה בארץ as well, if we take the view that he tried to return to Gd?)

Some of these have changed their forms over time, but they still exist within our religious lives. Here are some examples (you'll need to come to the class for more):

Korban - Tzedakah, Hiddur Mitzvah, Hakdashat Zman;
Song - Piyyutim, Zmirot Shabbat;
Monuments - Building a shul, Mezuzah;
Meditation - Hitboninut, Hitbodidut;
Siguf/Fasting - Taanit, pre-Yom Kippur practices of teshuvah and kapparah.

It's dangerous for us to limit our concept of prayer to the siddur; there are so many more ways we communicate with Gd. I hope this class will help sensitize people to some of those ways.

Friday, March 13, 2009

In Defense of Public Policy (Derashah Ki Tisa 5769)

Science fiction revels in the “What if” – as in, “What if Lincoln had not gone to Ford’s Theater on the night of his assassination?” “What if Napoleon had not invaded Russia in 1812?” and so on.

The Torah’s key moments are likewise open to an imaginative re-write. From “What if Adam and Chavah had not eaten the fruit,” to “What if Moshe had not struck the rock,” we can ask all sorts of open-ended questions and speculate about the answers.

Our own parshah presents a fascinating “What if” possibility, regarding the עגל הזהב, the Golden Calf: What if Aharon had said No?

As Ibn Ezra explains the story of the עגל, the Jews asked Aharon to create a physical symbol of Gd’s presence. Aharon saw nothing halachically prohibited in this request, and so he cooperated – only to have the project hijacked, the calf turned into an idol.

In our alternative universe, what if Aharon had looked at the proposed Calf not through a Halachic lens, but through a Public Policy lens? Aharon says to himself, “Hmm… where is this going?” And Aharon refuses. The nation is angry; they call him a machmir. They accuse him of being overly suspicious. They decry his “slippery slope” argument.

But, in the end, Moshe comes down from the mountain to find a righteous nation, instead of a nation of idolaters. The Luchos are never broken. There is no need for a central Mishkan, or even a central Beit haMikdash. Every city becomes a Yerushalayim, every home a Beit haMikdash, every table a true altar for Gd. The course of Jewish history, down to today, is forever changed.

Aharon’s Policy decision to permit the Calf changed Jewish history – and similar decisions, by other critical figures, have done likewise.
Dovid haMelech, King David, actually went both ways on matters of Policy:

• Dovid haMelech saw Batsheva, and fell for her. He calculated that Batsheva was Halachically permitted to him, and he had her brought to him, regardless of obvious Policy considerations.The result was Divine wrath and severe punishment, affecting both Dovid and the nation.
• On the other hand, later in his career Dovid haMelech had the opportunity to confiscate property using his royal powers. Halachically, he could have done it - but he declined because it smacked of theft, and he was praised for the decision.

The course of Jewish history has changed, and changed again, because of such Policy choices. Beyond Halachah, good Policy decisions have aided us, and bad Policy decisions have been our ruin.

What is Policy?

We often describe “Halachah” as a system that encompasses all of Jewish life, but it does not cover many situations:

• Within the bounds of Halachah, I could spend all day, every day, surfing the Internet, never working, and living off of tzedakah.
• Within the bounds of Halachah, I could purchase minority shares in companies that sell weapons to terrorists.
• Within the bounds of Halachah, I could, to cite a rabbinic mentor of mine, let my teenage daughter hold a co-ed slumber party.

This is why we need to establish Policy beyond Halachah, studying our values and using our human intuition and predicting the results of our actions, to chart a future course.

• Policy choices can be constructive, recommending that we do certain things.
• And Policy choices can be restrictive, recommending that we not do certain things.

Policy was what told Dovid haMelech not to confiscate property.
Policy would have told Dovid haMelech not to take Batsheva that way.
And Policy would have told Aharon not to create the עגל.

The Torah empowers our Jewish leadership to make these Policy decisions, to think ahead and plan and legislate for the sake of the community.

The Torah commands our sages, “ושמרו את משמרתי, You shall guard My preserve,” and the gemara explains, “עשו משמרת למשמרתי, Make a (rabbinic) preserve beyond My (biblical) preserve.” This is the source for rabbinic law.

The Torah instructs a rabbinical court, “ובערת הרע מקרבך, You shall eradicate evil from your midst,” and a properly certified court may take measures it deems appropriate to protect society.

Chatam Sofer, as we will discuss in the class this afternoon, argued that sages who calculate Policy actually possess רוח הקודש, a prophetic inspiration which guides them in their decisions and guarantees they will not err. Others suggest that Policy-making is a more earthly process, and that sages can, indeed, make mistake, just like anyone else. However we understand it, our rabbinic leadership is charged with the responsibility of trying to create Public Policy.

But the Torah does not stop with sages – it also places responsibility for Personal Policy on the shoulders of every Jew - every individual and every family.

Ramban explains, when the Torah says “קדושים תהיו, You shall be holy,” that is a sacred charge for every Jew: “קדש עצמך במותר לך, Restrain yourself even from that which is technically permitted, in order to sanctify yourself.”

Chatam Sofer put it more positively, writing, “He who would achieve piety before his Creator will be recognized by his deeds – by those practices which he originates for the sake of heaven...”

We make policy for ourselves, both the Ramban’s restrictions and the Chatam Sofer’s positive institutions, in order to sanctify ourselves. This is our responsibility, and this is our privilege.

HaShem did not tell Aharon and Dovid what to do, and HaShem does not tell us what to do, HaShem neither legislates against every possible danger nor institutes every possible piety. Rather, HaShem offers us the leeway to make a reasoned calculation, and to create sanctity for ourselves.

(We are celebrating an Engagement this Shabbat, so here I discussed the couple, and the role of Policy in shaping a Jewish home.)

1. For Dovid's restraint, see Bava Kama 60b. For the empowerment of courts to make policy decisions, see Moed Katan 5a, Yevamot 90b and Sanhedrin 81b for various examples.

2. Chatam Sofer's remarkable statement about personal originality is part of a great teshuvah, in 1: Orach Chaim 197. His comments on prophetic policy-making are a major theme in his derashot. See the work of Maoz Kahana, Tarbiz 76:3-4 (2007): 519-556. (Hat-tip to Menachem Butler for highlighting this article.)

3. Of course, in that alternative Eigel universe, the nation might simply have killed Aharon as the midrash explains they killed Chur. But you get the point.

4. Also re: the Alternative Eigel universe: The replacement of Mishkan for Eigel is Rashi's stance; Ramban disagrees.

5. Further re: the Alternative Eigel universe: Without a Beit haMikdash Yerushalayim might still have held primacy as the site of the Akeidah, but I wonder what practical role it would have played.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

"Rabbi, give me a berachah (blessing)"

Every once in a while, someone asks me to give him a berachah.

Inevitably, my mind jumps to the story told about Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, in which a student approached him and asked him for a berachah. As the story goes, he looked at the student quizzically and asked, “What are you – an apple?”

[I wonder if that story must be taken as a sign of the Rav's skepticism regarding giving a berachah; perhaps it was simply a safek berachos situation?]

There is ample precedent for rabbinic berachot, but by nature and by training, I am inclined to be skeptical about my own ability to give a berachah:

- Why should my tefillah on X’s behalf be more effective than anyone else’s tefillah on his behalf? If anything, it should be less effective! If I am more righteous [as some people bizarrely expect] then Gd judges me more closely than Gd judges others, and if I am less righteous [which I know, in my heart of hearts, is the reality] then I have used up all of my merit in various ways over the years.

- Further, does not the pursuit of berachot indicate a level of superstition?

- And still further, does not the pursuit of berachot indicate this person’s unwillingness to take responsibility for himself?

And so on with several more furthers I don’t have time to articulate at the moment.

But I do find that, on those rare occasions when I am asked to give a berachah, it’s a remarkably moving experience, at least on my end. Maybe that’s because people only request such berachot if they are sincere, but I feel a real connection to the mitbarech (the person requesting the berachah). And I feel an expectation, within myself, that I should make myself worthy of delivering a berachah.

Which leads to the next question: What sort of berachah should I offer?

We actually use the term “berachah” pretty loosely and flippantly – as in the conclusion to a chuppah speech, “My berachah to you is that you should…” [I dislike chuppah speeches, but that’s a topic for another time.] How do you compose a rabbinic berachah?

Our ancestors provided a clue, in the way they designed our prayers and blessings:

- HaShem told Moshe (Sh’mot 3:15), “When you mention My Name, say that I am the Gd of Avraham, the Gd of Yitzchak and the Gd of Yaakov.” And so, our Shemoneh Esreih begins with an appeal to the Divine protection of the Gd of Avraham, the Gd of Yitzchak and the Gd of Yaakov. [Sorry – Gd didn’t mention any matriarchs there. But that’s a topic for another time.]

- And each blessing in Shemoneh Esreih is modeled on specific biblical passages which relate to its theme.

- And for Tefilat haDerech, the Wayfarer’s Prayer, the sages instituted that we should close the blessing by reading pesukim about HaShem’s protection of Yaakov during his travels.

- And when a woman is about to be married, her parents offer her the biblical blessing which Rivkah’s family offered her when she was to marry Yitzchak.

So I opt for a similar approach: Based on the person and his circumstance, I choose a specific pasuk biblical passage, and express it as a prayer. That way it’s personal, while remaining loyal to an existing, holy text.

And I try to be solemn about it… but every once in a while I do wonder what would happen if I would say “Borei Pri haEitz” [the blessing recited before eating an apple].

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Vatican Celebrates Purim… who knew?

I didn’t even know the Vatican observed Purim, let alone got good and liquored up and printed Purim Schtick for the occasion!

You can't make this stuff up. The Vatican newspaper's Purim editorial argues that the greatest advance for women in the 20th century was the invention of the washing machine. Here, from Yahoo:

The submission was made in a lengthy article titled "The Washing Machine and the Liberation of Women - Put in the Detergent, Close the Lid and Relax."
The article was printed at the weekend in l'Osservatore Romano, the semi-official Vatican newspaper, to mark international Women's Day on Sunday.
"What in the 20th century did more to liberate Western women?," asks the article, which was written by a woman. "The debate is heated. Some say the pill, some say abortion rights and some the right to work outside the home. Some, however, dare to go further: the washing machine," it says.

Maybe the writer thought this was a pretty clever take on history, ignoring all of the obvious advances in favor of the little-suspected, never-mentioned but truly catalytic agent of change.

It's kind of like saying that the Internet wasn’t as great an advance in communication as, say, the invention of some fertility aid which enabled a boom in conceptions among a certain population, leading to the birth of a generation of engineers who would, one day, invent the Internet.

But, really. Romies, here’s a tip for you: Some thoughts are better kept to yourselves. (In Italian, per Google’s translation service, which unfortunately does not offer Latin: Alcuni pensieri sono meglio che rimanga a voi.)

And this is one of them.

Here’s the deal. You’re behind the old Eight Ball from the start – you’re the Vatican, for heaven’s sake! (So to speak.) If you say the word “women,” “woman,” “womanly” or even “womb,” people just assume the rest of your sentence is, “are inferior to men.”

They aren’t even listening; a low buzz drowns out your words, and the subconscious replaces them with “women are agents of sin, but they are here on earth to be slaves who do housework and give birth to children.”

I know - I'm a rabbi. I have my own words which I know I can't use, because they just demand misinterpretation. If a rabbi says "television," listeners hear "evils of modern media." If a rabbi says "zmanim," listeners hear "overly obsessed with minutiae." And don't even get me started on "aphids."

It's like Microsoft Word's Auto Correct option - if you type teh, it automatically substitutes the - so if the Vatican says Women, society's Auto Correct option substitutes Foul demonslave temptress incubators.

So you’re never going to win, and that’s reason enough not to write articles with any of those W words.

And then, as if including Women was not enough, you went and put Housework into the same thought. Women, housework, together, in a Vatican editorial. Not a good move.

Face it, Vatican, about the only way you could have made this worse would have been to throw in Bishop Williamson.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Purim Post II: OU to Abolish the Rabbi's Sermon, Replace it with Kiddush Clubs

[Note: For the record - I oppose Kiddush Clubs, for many, many reasons. The post below is intended as humor, whether successful or not.]

New York - As part of its campaign to make Shabbat morning davening more meaningful, and to improve mitzvah observance in general, the Orthodox Union is calling upon member synagogues to eliminate the spiritually deleterious practice of including a rabbinic sermon, dvar torah, homily or derashah as part of Shabbat morning services.

Aside from the fact that such divrei torah often deviate from the scripts provided via OU.org, the sense of the OU board is that the Shabbat morning speech does not belong in an Orthodox synagogue, and would be better replaced with a more wholesome alternative, such as a Kiddush Club.

Contacted for an explanation, an OU spokesman laid out five advantages to a Kiddush Club over a rabbinic speech, related to five major issues of concern for the OU:

1. Kvod Beit haKnesset (respect for the synagogue environment)
Rabbinic speeches are known for inducing sleep in the synagogue sanctuary, a practice clearly against halachah, as outlined in gemara, Rambam and Shulchan Aruch.
Kiddush Clubs generally take place in darker corners of the building, such as coatrooms and downstairs hallways, far from the places dedicated to mitzvot and tefillah (prayer).

2. Bitul Zman (wasting of time)
Not only do rabbinic speeches often offer fulminations on political matters rather than explication of Torah, but they also trigger further conversations along those lines. Further, these speeches are often a communal waste of time, on a grand scale.
Kiddush Clubs, on the other hand, involve filling one's mouth with food, such that speech is impossible.

3. Adherence to Halachic Zmanim (the legal times for performance of certain mitzvot)
During the months of November and December, sunrise is so late and sunset is so early that, due to extended speeches, congregations often conclude Shabbat morning davening after Chatzot (midway between sunrise and sunset, for our purposes). One is not supposed to fast on Shabbat, and waiting to eat until after Chatzot is considered the equivalent of fasting.
Abolition of the speech during those months would significantly increase the likelihood of finishing davening before Chatzot. Introduction of a Kiddush Club would virtually guarantee that every member of the congregation would have the opportunity to hear kiddush and eat by the proper time.

4. Lashon HaRa (harmful speech)
The Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation are not the only ones concerned with Lashon HaRa. The OU would like to make certain that its member congregations do not engage in Lashon HaRa against the rabbi, and eliminating the speech would remove a major cause of Lashon HaRa.
A Kiddush Club, on the other hand, would have no such problem of generating Lashon HaRa, assuming (a) they purchased good quality beverages, and (b) they invited everyone in the shul to partake.

5. The Oneg-meter
Finally: Oneg Shabbat [physical enjoyment of Shabbat] is of central importance. Kiddush Club? An increase in Oneg. A speech? Not so much.

We certainly hope that this move to eliminate rabbinic speeches will improve our davening, our communities, and the lives of individual Jews. But even if not, it will certainly improve the lives of our rabbis, who will be able to free up a good chunk of their Thursdays and Fridays for other purposes.

חג פורים שמח!

Purim Post I: Kosher Beer Guide

The Kosher Beers blog has performed a great service for the kosher-consuming, Purim-observing community, posting a Kosher Beer Guide in honor of Purim.

Note that, as I said here, I don't favor a heavy drinking approach on Purim, and I am very against drinking in the presence of children on Purim.

Further, I don't really like beer. Dark, light, calories, no calories, malty or oaky or hoppy or imported or domestic or whatever... to me, it's all just cheap alcohol.

But for those seeking a good beer for a moderate drink at the seudah, go see the guide here.

We generally assume that unflavored beers are kosher, but please note that:
1) Beers might be flavored without clear advertisement of that fact, and
2) There are kosher flavored beers.
So see the list here.

I hope to get to Purim Post II later today... apparently, a major Jewish organization has now decided to outlaw the rabbinic sermon for Shabbat mornings. More to come, if I can clear the time.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Sorry, I have no lemons... but these two do

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here.]

Jendeis has honored me with a Lemonade Stand award, “for those who use the lemons in their lives to make lemonade, or who help do the same for others.”

I am flattered; as I have written elsewhere, “it’s rewarding to have someone say, “Good job,” especially when that someone is a blogger whose work you also respect.”

But, frankly, I don’t really have any lemons.

I know that could be taken as a pretty corny, not to mention disingenuous, line. Who doesn’t endure times when they hate their situations? Who doesn’t make decisions they regret, or just get beaten up by other people?

Come on, Rabbi – Don’t give me that line about “I have a great family, a great community…” I know you’re not always happy. I’ve seen you at 4:45 AM.

True; guilty as charged. But I am far more likely to get angry at myself for mis-handling a situation than I am to get upset about the situation itself. Not because of emunah [faith in Gd], not because I’m happy-go-lucky [ I am so not], but just because that’s my personality. I get annoyed with myself, and I’m good at it.

But she gave me the award, thank you very much. Time to move on to the obligation that comes with it: to pass along this award to “those who use the lemons in their lives to make lemonade.”

This is not easy for me; I don’t read too many blogs regularly. I feel guilty about this, first because other people are saying some pretty good things, and second because I enjoy it when they visit my little corner here. It’s sort of like expecting other people to come to your shiur, but not going to theirs. (Which, come to think of it, is something I do all the time.)

But I don’t read too many blogs on a regular basis, and of the ones I do read, most of them don’t engage in the lemons-to-lemonade exercise.

I used to read Wings Like a Dove, where Rivka struggled mightily to turn the table on some very serious lemons, the kind you can’t joke about, but she hasn’t posted since November. I hope she is well.

Jameel used to do the lemons-to-lemonade thing regarding life in Israel, but ever since Cast Lead started it’s been lemons all the way around.

And don’t get me started on Orthonomics, where even the roses smell lemon-fresh these days.

The Renegade Rebbetzin (no, not the same as my esteemed rebbetzin) is a perennial favorite of mine, but she actually glories in her lemons. Why bother seeing the good side of a congregant or shul issue when you can rant about it? [Please, RenReb, don’t change – I love reading that stuff.]

I guess there are two blogs I read regularly which fit the bill:

Everyone Needs Therapy, where Therapydoc describes lemons in detail. As a good doctor, she won’t turn them into lemonade for you, but she will help you turn them into lemonade yourself.

And good old Jack, who turns the lemons of aging into lemonade. Not for himself, mind you; he can’t get past the big 40 staring at him, and I suspect that as soon as 40 is gone, it’ll be 45 that frightens him. But he does turn the aging lemons into lemonade for me – because whenever I think about getting older, I can always say, “Yeah, but Jack’s a couple of years ahead of me.”

Doc, Jack - thanks for everything you do.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Purim: A Holiday founded on Chesed (Derashah Zachor 5769)

This derashah was actually a mussarish talk for an issue in our community. I have excluded the community-relevant piece, which somewhat damages the flow but leaves the dvar torah intact.

Our Yamim Tovim commemorate glorious historic events – national rebirth, covenants between the finite and the Infinite, moments of Divine intervention in the lives of mortal humanity – but they also commemorate the themes which shaped our ancestors’ actions in the past and which remain a part of our national psyche.

Those themes shape the way we mark each holiday – the mitzvot of the day translate those themes into action.

On Succot, for example, we commemorate the theme of Emunah, trust in Gd, לכתך אחרי במדבר בארץ לא זרועה, our ancestors’ willingness to trail after a pillar of cloud and a column of flame in a land which provided neither milk nor honey. Therefore, we celebrate by sitting in סוכות, huts which offer scant protection against the elements, trusting in Gd to look after us.

On Pesach we commemorate the theme of Masorah, that tradition which communicated פקוד יפקוד, Gd will save you, and so inspired the enslaved descendants of Avraham and Sarah to cry out to Gd. Therefore, we celebrate with והגדת לבנך, with a Seder constructed around the theme of Masorah, of telling our children about our history, conveying precisely that message that Gd will come to our rescue.

On Shavuot we commemorate the theme of Commitment to Gd, our pledge of timeless loyalty and devotion memorialized at Sinai in the words נעשה ונשמע, We will do and we will hear. Therefore, we celebrate by bringing the ביכורים, the First Fruits, each farmer committing the first benefits of his year’s labor to Gd at the Beit haMikdash.

Which brings us to Purim, and the association between its practical mitzvot and Purim’s driving theme.

We mark Purim with four mitzvot: Megilah reading, the Purim Seudah, Mishloach Manot (gifts of food), and Matanot laEvyonim (tzedakah).

We read the megilah to remember the miracle and to thank Gd for creating it. We enjoy a Purim Seudah because we always celebrate Divine rescue with a feast of thanks.

But what holiday-related theme is evoked with these mitzvot of Chesed – giving gifts of food, or tzedakah?

An answer, I think, lies in the Chesed event that made the Purim miracle possible – an event that is barely mentioned, but critical to the storyline.

Before Haman’s ascendancy, before the beauty contest for the queen’s job, even before Achashverosh’s party, a single key act of generosity made everything else possible, paving the way for our salvation. It’s there in the megilah, but it doesn’t demand our attention and we tend to skip it.

The entire megilah rests on this single act of chesed: “ויהי אומן את הדסה היא אסתר בת דודו כי אין לה אב ואם, And Mordechai nurtured Hadassah, aka Esther, his cousin, because she had neither father nor mother.” Esther was an orphan, and Mordechai, her senior cousin, took her into his home and raised her.

Chesed is the theme that drives Purim. Just as Batyah’s adoption of Moshe in the Torah shaped one redemption, so Mordechai’s adoption of Esther in the Megilah shaped another:

Because Mordechai had adopted Esther, he was able to help guide her character as she matured.

Because Mordechai had adopted Esther, he was able to advise her when Achashverosh’s talent scouts came knocking.

And ויהי אומן, because Mordechai had adopted Esther, he was able to coach her when she was in the palace.

This great act of selflessness, taking in an orphan and raising her as his own, made all of the difference.

And so, every year, we mark Purim not only by thanking Gd with megilah and a feast, but also with Chesed, sharing gifts and giving tzedakah to commemorate the kindness that planted the seeds of redemption.

This morning we concluded קריאת התורה with the story of Amalek’s attack, with the account of how this nation who had no apparent issue with us chose to attack us out of the blue.

The Torah indicates that Amalek was not a great warrior nation; we davened and we rallied to drive them off, and even before that they were not able to score much of a military victory. As the Torah describes it, they were scavengers. ויזנב בך כל הנחשלים אחריך, They attacked those who were weak, the stragglers at the back.

We are charged with the annual responsibility of remembering Amalek’s attack, not only to commemorate their viciousness but also to reinforce our defenses against their attack, to ensure that the next Amalek in history’s long parade of Amalek’s is not able to repeat the success of the original.

When we succeed in ויהי אומן, when we follow Mordechai’s lead and adopt those around us, then there are no נחשלים, there are no vulnerable stragglers, there will be no victory for Amalek. Instead, ליהודים היתה אורה ושמחה וששון ויקר, we will be able to celebrate a Purim victory.

1. There are more acts of Chesed in the megilah - Mordechai for Achashverosh, Hatach for Mordechai and Esther, ditto regarding Charvonah, and, of course, Esther for the Jewish people as a whole.

2. Of course, another source for Matanot laEvyonim and Mishloach Manot is a counter-balance for Haman's allegation of
ישנו עם אחד מפוזר ומפורד בין העמים, the splintered character of the Jewish people. And a third source, which fits Mishneh Berurah 694:3, is that these mitzvot generate joy, enhancing our national celebration of the miracle.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Drinking on Purim - adults, children, and adults in the presence of children

Warning: Soapbox ahead.

On Purim we celebrate the ultimate joy of a sudden national rescue, and our sages taught that we should imbibe alcohol at the Purim Seudah as part of this celebration. Just as we abstain from various foods and from drink at certain times of the year to induce sadness, so we indulge in various foods and in drink at other times of the year, to induce joy. The gemara’s standard for imbibing is to drink until we cannot tell the difference between “Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai” (Megilah 7b).

Authorities differ on how much to drink, but the following is clear: An adult who is medically, psychologically and emotionally able to drink, and who has a designated driver, should drink some amount of alcohol - preferably enough that he feels lightheaded (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 695:2). One should enjoy his Seudah, drink a little, and then sleep off the effects of the alcohol.

Many people, and I include myself in this number, have embraced the practice of drinking minimally at the Purim Seudah and then fulfilling the state of intoxication by taking a nap after the meal. This approach is sanctioned by the Rama (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 695:2).

The following is obvious, and I apologize for taking your time with it, but if my blog has any reach at all then I feel an obligation to state this obvious point. Please:

1) Never give alcohol to minors to drink on Purim. It is not necessary for their fulfillment of any Mitzvah. It might be secularly legal as sacramental wine, but it is a foolish and dangerous practice and therefore prohibited as endangering our children as well as violating our obligation of chinuch for our children.

I do believe there is a difference between giving children the barest taste of wine from Kiddush and engaging in Purim drinking in their presence. The former is a formal setting, and no one (I hope) is drinking to get a buzz. On Purim, though, because the drinking is more loose and more geared toward celebration, I believe that the rule should be that children drink no alcohol at all.

2) Adults should not drink on Purim in the presence of young children. Immature children cannot tell when you are in control and when you are not, cannot comprehend the dangers associated with alcohol, cannot accept the idea that adults can do what children are not permitted to do, and cannot understand the difference between Purim and the rest of the year.

Note: When I say young children, the definition depends upon the child. It may well include teenagers; it's a matter of maturity, per #2 above.

The finest joy is a celebration which centers around a Mitzvah, and this is the essence of Purim – the four mitzvot (Megilah, Sending Gifts of Food, Giving to the Poor and having a Feast) which are about experiencing joy and spreading joy and thanking HaShem for saving us from destruction.

For more on this theme see Shaarei Teshuvah of Rav Chaim Margaliyot (printed with a standard Mishneh Berurah), in his final comment on Orach Chaim.

I apologize for wasting anyone’s time by stating the obvious, but as I said above, I feel the responsibility of stating this in any forum I have available.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Rabbinic Purim Costumes 2009

[Here's a late celebration of yesterday's Link to Jack Day.]

Once again, I am stuck for a costume, the week before Purim.

So I looked back at my "Rabbinic Purim Costumes" post from last year, and found little I could add. In part, it goes:

The costume has to be fun, it has to say the rabbi really knows how to have a good time even if he spends the whole rest of the year squelching everyone else’s good time. But, on the other hand, he has to remain the rabbi even as he has that good time, because it’s in shul, because he’s going to read the megilah in costume, and because, well, he’s still the rabbi.

Which means:
-The costume can’t be pedestrian, a costume for the sake of a costume, as in the old standby gorilla suit.

-It also can’t be offensive; I’m not doing the kefiyyeh routine, which some would take very, very seriously. No drunks, no priests, no drunken priests. I would love to go as Obama, but blackface is very out.

-Oh, and it can’t be too much work. Definitely not too much work. No fancy makeup. I dyed my hair pink one year, and that wasn’t too bad, but it got all over everything.

-And it can’t be expensive. That Batman outfit was good, but it was a very expensive rental. I’m not going that route again.
I thought about shaving again this year, and going in drag; it would be good for some surprises and laughs, and there is plenty of halachic material supporting that sort of costume for Purim. But I don’t really need to have my community psychoanalyzing me for weeks afterward.

(See the whole post here. Make sure to read the comments; they were fun.)

Last year I ended up going as a Lehigh Valley Iron Pig, wrapped in tape and stickers from various hashgachot. That wasn't bad, for a last-minute job. But it's one more costume I can't use this year.

I have a neat costume for our shul's annual Purim Gala fundraiser, which is the Motzaei Shabbat before Purim, but it won't carry over well for Purim; the joke fits well with the honorees, but kids as well as people who aren't "in the know" won't get it. (I'll post a picture if it goes well, Gd-willing. Clue: Punchlines.)

So I'm stuck again. Time to search the JBlogosphere.

ClooJew has a great idea here for a costume that's just a little Halloweeny - but it requires that I get equipment... and that I remember to charge batteries in advance.

A commenter at Frum Satire mentions going as a pregnant nun, which isn't a bad idea, actually. Low-budget, if I just use a black sheet as the habit. Hmm...

Squad 51 mentions going as an economic stimulus package, and wants to know how to decorate the package. Frankly, though, I think a barrel and suspenders would suffice...

And there was a comment here suggesting a T-shirt with the logo, "Bernie Madoff stole my costume." Not bad, but, again, the kids won't get it.

I'm still thinking. Maybe I should just go to the Gemach here.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Aspiring to defy Gd

What Soren Kierkegaard did for Avraham’s faith in Fear and Trembling, someone with an equally eloquent pen ought to do for Moshe’s defiance.

Kierkegaard wrote, with moving, powerful, dramatic beauty, of Avraham’s Akeidah, his decision to follow Gd and bring his son Yitzchak as a korban. He decried those who would infantilize Avraham’s obedience to Gd, who would view it with “the child’s pious simplicity.” He demonstrated, vividly, that this Akeidah was not an act of simple faith, but, rather, a soul-wrenching, terrifying, faithful devotion to a shockingly cruel Divine demand.

Someone ought to do the same for Moshe Rabbeinu’s multiple defiances of Gd, celestial acts which are yet fodder for so many aggravatingly simplistic divrei torah.

Like every 7th of Adar, as I observe Moshe Rabbeinu’s yahrtzeit this year I am awed by a new aspect of that human being whose life, whose power, overwhelms anything I can fathom. This year, it’s his defiance.

Moshe defies Gd multiple times, in multiple scenarios, including:
Gd orders Moshe to return to Egypt and save the Jews; Moshe declines.
Gd instructs Moshe to give the Jews the Torah on the 6th of Sivan; per the gemara, Moshe alters the date to the 7th of Sivan.
Gd declares His desire to destroy the idolatrous, rebellious nation; Moshe denies Gd the opportunity.
Gd informs Moshe that he will die; Moshe instructs Gd in choosing a new leader.
Gd instructs Moshe to remain in the desert; Moshe rails against his fate, before finding acceptance.
And yet, through it all, Gd describes Moshe as בכל ביתי נאמן הוא, the most loyal member of the Divine house. ככל אשר צוה ה' את משה, Following every word Gd instructed Moshe, so Moshe spoke and so Moshe did.

The more I contemplate it, the less I comprehend it.

Or to borrow from Kierkegaard regarding the Akeidah, “The older he became the more often his thoughts turned to that tale, his enthusiasm became stronger and stronger, and yet less and less could he understand it.”

Tanach is filled with people who refuse Divine instructions. Pharaoh. Bilam. And, on the good side, Yonah.

What marks Moshe’s refusal as unique – although Yonah’s has elements of this same character – is that his is not denial, it is defiance.

Pharaoh says, “Who is Gd, that I should listen?” Bilaam says, “Gd will have to follow my will.”

Moshe, on the other hand, accepts the reality of Gd fully, accepts the Torah of Gd fully, accepts the service of Gd fully. Moshe believes in Gd, he does not deny Gd’s existence or authority.

It seems to me that Moshe’s awareness of Gd is what fuels his defiance. He is Gd’s child. His refusal is born out of love for Gd, in the way that adult children often absorb and practice their parents’ values, and yet – in fulfilling their understanding of those same values – defy their parents’ instructions.

And so Avraham is labelled by Gd, אברהם אוהבי, “Avraham who loved Me,” but Moshe is labelled בן ביתי, a member of My household, the one whom I loved.

I never cease to be enthralled by Moshe. He is so far beyond anything I could ever become, and yet his story speaks volumes to me as a person, as a rabbi, as a Jew. His is iconic leadership and iconic abandonment, iconic selflessness and iconic self-awareness, iconic devotion and iconic defiance, iconic failure and iconic success.

יהי זכרו ברוך.