Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Transparency in American Orthodox Jewish Institutions

As I've noted elsewhere, one of this year's RCA resolutions promoted Insitutional Transparency for the Jewish community.

I spoke about the issue in shul two weeks ago, connecting it with the Institutional Transparency of sending the meraglim to scout out Israel (derashah here).

In the wake of that speech, a congregant of mine inquired about a major Orthodox Jewish organization that does not publish its financial records. I passed along the question to one of the organization's leaders, and he replied that they are very fiscally responsible, reviewing and auditing their records, but they do not plan to publish anything.

Note that some organizations are legally exempt from transparency - here are the IRS exemptions for religious organizations:
1. A church, an interchurch organization of local units of a church, a convention or association of churches, or an integrated auxiliary of a church as described in Regulations
section 1.6033-2(h) (such as a men’s or women’s organization, religious school, mission society, or youth group).
2. A church-affiliated organization that is exclusively engaged in managing funds or maintaining retirement programs and is described in Rev. Proc. 96-10, 1996-1 C.B. 577.
3. A school below college level affiliated with a church or operated by a religious order described in Regulations section 1.6033-2(g)(1)(vii).
4. A mission society sponsored by, or affiliated with, one or more churches or church denominations, if more than half of the society’s activities are conducted in, or directed at, persons in foreign countries.
5. An exclusively religious activity of any religious order described in Rev. Proc. 91-20, 1991-1 C.B. 524.
(For more information, see the IRS pdf here.)

Nonetheless, I believe that financial transparency of tzedakah-receiving organizations is important in halachah, separate from financial responsibility:
Responsibility means we are careful with how we spend tzedakah money.
Transparency means we let our donors know how we spend their tzedakah money.

There are many sources in our masorah recommending transparency; see Midrash Tanchuma Pekudei 4 and Rama Yoreh Deah 257:2 for a couple of examples.

So I began to look at Orthodox Jewish institutions, to see how many file Form 990 with the IRS, publicizing their records. The results are encouraging; most of them do publish their records.

Here are some early findings, courtesy of Guidestar; more to follow, Gd-willing. The organization titles below link to their most recent publicly available filings, which are generally 2007.

Agudath Israel of America

Agudath Israel of America Foundation

AMIT Women

AOJS (Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists)

Bnei Akiva of the US and Canada

Chabad Lubavitch National Campus Foundation

Chabad Lubavitch Torah Educational Services



Emunah Women of America

JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminists of America)

Merkos l’Inyonei Chinuch (But why nothing since 1998?)

National Council of Young Israel's Yisrael haTzair supporting National Council efforts in Israel


RIETS (Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary)

RZA (Religious Zionists of America)

Star K Supervision

Touro College

Touro University

Yeshiva Chovevei Torah

Yeshiva University

ZOA (Zionist Organization of America)

National Council of Young Israel


(Note that they are both legally exempt under Item 1 above.)

More to follow, when I have a few minutes to follow up on more organizations.

Monday, June 29, 2009

It’s just the way people talk, right?

I attended a safety course the other day, and the instructor made reference to a razor, gesturing to one of the women present and saying something along the lines of, “You know, like one of the little pink disposable razors she uses.”

I found the line jarring - not because there was anything illicit implied or intended, but because, by its very nature, that sort of thing seems to be me to be private. Yes, everyone knows that women use these, and it’s normal for public conversation in an age when far more intimate things are discussed on network television – both entertainment and news - and in children’s films… but, still, I found it uncomfortable to have someone make public reference to them.

It’s not about any pornographic innuendo; I’ll give you a different case to illustrate what I mean.

A few years back I served as mashgiach for a catered event. At one point during the kitchen preparation, the head of the operation left for an errand. Immediately after his car pulled out of the lot, two things happened: One, the employees stopped most of their work. And second, they started talking about him in ways that just struck me as nasty. They weren’t complaining about any particular behavior or event, they were just making fun of him.

It is, of course, the way people talk. But I find it repellent.

Many of my formative social years were spent in a beit midrash atmosphere where that kind of talk, whether prurient or derogatory, is frowned upon, and that shaped my sensitivities for life.

I’m not claiming purity for the beit midrash environment; I am quite aware that not everyone who learns is clean of mouth. I knew people then, and I know people today, who wear the mantle of Torah but still speak negatively about others, or tell off-color jokes.

But in my time in Yeshivat Kerem b’Yavneh and Yeshiva University I was fortunate to be surrounded by friends who were, for the most part, careful with their speech. If you spoke inappropriately, their expression – a look at the floor, a grimace – told you so. And so our society enforced the idea of guarding our speech, and lines like that one about the razor, or speech behind someone’s back, still gives me a shudder.

I never was particularly protected from the world around me, and I certainly am not sheltered today. I have, to a certain extent, become de-sensitized to a lot of things. But that has not changed.

I hope I am not coming across as sanctimonious or self-righteous – that is not my intent, and I am in no position of righteousness to judge others - but I thank Gd, as well as the friends of my yeshiva days, that I have not lost that shudder.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Last Derashah

[Haveil Havalim is here!]

I don’t know whether I’ve been in denial, or just too busy to think about it, but it finally hit me, just this Shabbos, that I have six weeks remaining in the pulpit rabbinate (at least, for now). That’s six more derashos (sermons, speeches, talks, whatever).

When you know you have only six more opportunities to address a mass audience, what topics do you choose? And in particular, what do you say for the last speech of all?

I’ve had times, during my dozen rabbinic years, when I’ve mentally drafted a parting speech. Those tended not to be the best of moments, though… so I’m starting from scratch here.

I’ve thought about not delivering a derashah that Shabbos. I’ve never done that, never taken a Shabbos ‘off’ like that, so why not take advantage and do it now? Fire me, pal.

I’ve thought about using it for mussar, to speak about things I believe should change within the community, but I can’t think of too many things I’ve omitted over the years, that I would want to include on that last day.

I could make it a personal talk about my own feelings, but, frankly, I do that a lot already.

I could give general life-advice, lessons I’ve learned, but that’s the sort of thing that could come off as rather pompous. Randy Pausch could do it because he was speaking about facing death, and it’s a topic on which he had a personal expertise. It doesn’t work as well for a retiring rabbi speaking about life.

My current inclination is to speak about my regrets – things I didn’t do within the shul/community, that I wish I had done (and maybe someone will do in the future...). Gd knows there’s plenty of material in that topic; I could probably give the next six about that topic, alone.

But what would you do?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson in the same day?

It's hard to think of losing both of these illicit icons of a '70s-'80s American childhood in the same day. Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson... what's next, the entire cast of Family Ties or (less wholesomely) Revenge of the Nerds?

I could write much on this, as someone who grew up surrounded by the sights of one and the sounds of the other. (I bet my blogging contemporaries, the Renegade Rebbetzin and Jack, could do so as well.)

For me, Farrah and Michael didn't matter so much in and of themselves, but they symbolized "fitting in." Those of us who knew about them were part of the gang; those who did not were automatically on the outs. (I'll let you guess which side I occupied.) Funny, that people we had never met and would never meet should be the barometers of social eligiblity, but so it was.

My derashah is going nowhere this evening. I've gone through several ideas - העיני האנשים תנקר vs והיית לנו לעינים, for example - with no success. I'm sorely tempted to try to tackle this for the derashah instead...

I could go the harangue route and talk about the world of gashmiut (the material world, to quote another '80s icon), and condemn the stars whose fame is the barometer of success for the rest of the world;

Or, I suppose I could talk about the relative merits and negatives of exposing children to the world of popular culture, and the question of how such exposure influences their future lives;

Or, I could discuss the way each dealt with fame;

Or, for a parshah-related twist, I could talk about jealousy, as in the jealousy we felt for these larger-than-life stars, and the jealousy Korach felt for Moshe and Aharon...

Or not.

I haven't thought about Farrah or Michael in years, other than to notice one headline or another. But there is a definite feeling of loss that comes with seeing the big names of your youth pass on. It's like seeing athletes your age retire from sports, or hearing that the once-young teachers of your youth have retired.

I'm rambling here, just to avoid working on the derashah. Time to hang it up and get back to work.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Summer Road Trip? Remember to say Tefilat haDerech

On Sunday, the esteemed Rebbetzin and I drove from Allentown to Toronto, with two of our children; we drove back to Allentown yesterday afternoon.

My other trips to Toronto have been by plane, but for the sake of having a car at hand, and because we needed to bring two of the kids, we chose to drive for this trip. It was good having all of those hours to spend with the family, although the long, fast-moving stretches were better than the hours at the border on Sunday evening.

Two particularly interesting things came out of the drive:

1. Thanks to the GPS we were loaned, I now know how to say “Recalculating,” “Turn left” and “Turn right” in a great many languages, including something called Eeski, which sounded vaguely Slavic or Scandinavian. The kids enjoyed it, so did I, and the rebbetzin reluctantly endured it because I was doing the driving.

2. But second, on a more sober note, I realized after arriving home that we entirely forgot to say Tefillat haDerech (“the traveler’s prayer”). The tefillah certainly was warranted for such a long highway trip, but we simply forgot.

It’s not that I am normally ungrateful; I am pretty good about saying it on a plane at wheels-up. My wallet holds a UJC card with the text. And I do believe that highway driving is dangerous; just yesterday there was a report on Toronto news radio about a crash involving an SUV that blew a tire. The vehicle crossed the median hit a Greyhound bus carrying a semi-pro football team, the London Silverbacks. The driver of the SUV was killed when her vehicle caught fire, and there were injuries on the bus. No matter how good your driving, you can’t escape a situation like that, so I feel pretty grateful to have been protected… and yet we didn’t say the tefillah.

(Yes, the vast majority of drivers arrive home safely. And yes, it is certainly true that other modes of transportation are as dangerous, or more so – cf. the train crash in Washington DC and the Brazil-Paris flight. But neither of those points are relevant here.)

Forgetting to say Tefillat haDerech feels terribly wrong. It’s like a total neglect to remember the good that Gd does for me. I feel like a bit of a jerk today, for forgetting it. But there really is no make-up, other than to make myself more aware of HaShem’s protection in the future, both in driving and in general.

And, I suppose, to make others aware by posting this reminder. You can find the text here.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Spitting in the synagogue - Hygiene, Tolerance and a Public Space

I once davened in a minyan factory beside a man who had some kind of medical problem; he kept a styrofoam cup with him, and he spat gently into the cup every couple of minutes.

The man was fairly discreet, he did not cough loudly or sneeze on people, but I was still quite disturbed. Part of it was that the cup was not covered. Part was lack of sleep. Part was, I suppose, my own איסטניס istinis character. (In the language of mishnah and gemara, an istinis is someone of delicate mind, who cannot tolerate physical or mental discomfort.) Whatever the cause, I found concentration challenging.

Classically, American shuls (and European as well, I imagine) had spittoons, but that was in an age when public expectoration was expected. Going back further, gemara and rishonim and shulchan aruch (Orach Chaim 92) discuss the status of saliva in shul, and the halachic authorities rule that one should prepare a handkerchief or something similar to absorb the saliva, because it's repellent during davening.

So, from a halachic perspective, he should have used a cloth or similar material to conceal his spit. But I'm more drawn by the fundamental philosophical issue of how one reacts in shul, when someone's behavior is personally necessary but it bothers other people.

This is an issue regarding the well-beaten horse corpse of talking in shul, of course, but also for less obviously noxious behavior like pacing in a row, reciting words audibly, stressing sibilants, blowing one's nose loudly... a shul is a public space, and so consideration of others is mandated, but how far do we go in requiring that people rein in their eccentricities in order to accommodate others? What if he had been spitting into a handkerchief, but it had still distracted me?

And further – what about where it's actually communal behavior that bothers an individual? Example: The community does not want an air conditioner on, but an individual wants it. Or: The custom is for the leader to bang his shtender (lectern) before starting the Amidah on holidays to remind people to insert special prayers, but that bang disturbs someone's concentration. So who must bend?

I suppose this brings me back to my “Who owns the shul?” post on setting a shul philosophy which may offend some. Following Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook's logic there, it would be my obligation to be as flexible as possible, in order to avoid driving anyone away.

But, on the other hand, perhaps philosophy and personal hygiene should be viewed differently. Perhaps when it comes to philosophy we should avoid the tyranny of the many, but when it comes to personal hygiene we should avoid the tyranny of the few?

Don't know. Your thoughts?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Ray Bradbury, Bo Derek, Gary Kao and more

Found a few minutes tonight to catch up on newspaper websites, which was nice. Here are several interesting articles I can recommend:

From the Wall Street Journal: A Wandering Mind Heads Straight Toward Insight
I love reading about Creativity, and this article offers much food for thought, in terms of how creativity is triggered in the brain, the role of daydreaming, and different methods of problem-solving. I have to assume that some of the daydreaming observations may help explain why kids and teens do so much unfocused thinking. Incredibly fascinating.

The New York Times offers: A Literary Legend Fights for a Local Library
I didn't know Ray Bradbury was still alive; I love his writing. Now he's campaigning for the survival of a California library, but the interview is really more about what Bradbury is doing these days - writing, speaking, railing against the Internet and reminiscing about Bo Derek - than it is about the fate of the library. I'm surprised to hear of his opposition to the Internet; I would have expected him to value its potential for safeguarding books. But I don't know him, I've only read his books.

Another one from the New York Times: At V.A. Hospital, a Rogue Cancer Unit
I worry about things like this all the time - doctors who don't know what they are doing, or who don't care, but get by because the people who know them are reluctant to speak out. The allegations regarding prostate cancer treatment by Dr. Gary D. Kao and others are truly frightening. That it's happening to military vets makes it even worse.

Caroline Glick offers Column One: Israel's rare opportunity
Ms. Glick oversimplifies way too much for the sake of her point, making many tenuous assumptions about Iran's government, its people's inclinations, and more. She knows it, and adds numerous disclaimers and caveats to that effect. Nonetheless, her essential argument that Israel should publicly recognize and support Iran's demonstrators is compelling.

And, finally, CNN offers a shockingly low-key government statement, in Gates: U.S. ready if North Korea sends missile toward Hawaii
Word is that North Korea is preparing to launch a missile at Hawaii, and the best the Secretary of Defense can muster is, ""We do have some concerns if they were to launch a missile," but "we are in a good position should it become necessary to protect the American territory."
Is he asleep, or just trying to project calm? I'd be more comfortable with a, "Come on, guys, that ain't gonna happen," or a Bush-esque "Bring it on!" What does "We do have some concerns" mean?

Oh, and let's not forget... this week's Haveil Havalim is here!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Iran's Trust Revolution and the Meraglim (Derashah Shelach 5769)

According to the analysts, Iran’s upheaval is not a 21st century version of Eastern Europe’s liberation. Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are both conservatives, ideological brothers.

This is also not a “power to the people” rebellion; Iran’s poorer classes support Ahmadinejad, not Moussavi.

Millions of Iranians are endangering their own lives not out of political philosophy or abject poverty, but in outrage over a government that has betrayed their trust.

Government has always been empowered by social contract, but in this age of free and speedy access to information government is also held accountable to social contract. Violating that contract, betraying that trust, in Iran’s case ignoring votes in a democracy, leads to revolt.

The need for maintaining popular trust is not a new idea. In fact, a midrash suggests that Gd's decision to send the meraglim/spies was motivated by that need, to maintain popular trust regarding Canaan, to head off doubt by letting the Jews themselves see what the land offered.

Elaborating on this point, the midrash compares the desert Jews to a man who wishes to purchase a donkey. He asks, 'Would you give it to me for a test run?' The owner agrees. 'Can I take it on mountains and through hills?' 'Sure.' Once the buyer sees that the owner is hiding nothing, he hands over the money without even doing the test.

Of course, our relationship with HaShem is supposed to be about Emunah/faith, but Gd understood that not every Jew would reach such a high level, that some might need to know everything upfront – and so HaShem allowed them to send spies, in order to build trust.

Moshe also practiced this trust-building transparency, regarding the money he raised for the mishkan. After the collection was complete, Moshe gave the nation a full accounting of all of the items presented; it’s listed in the beginning of the parshah of Pekudei.

One midrash suggests that this was a response to people's explicit allegations about what Moshe was doing with the money; Moshe swore he would provide a full accounting in order to earn their trust, and he did.

Moshe's practice with the Mishkan collection became the recommended ‘best practice’ for tzedakah in general; the Shulchan Aruch says that elected tzedakah distributors need not provide a full explanation of their spending, but the Rama adds that they should do so anyway, כדי שיהיו נקיים מה' ומישראל, to maintain innocence before Gd and Israel.

And this transcends the realm of tzedakah; the Torah’s instruction of maintaining innocence in the eyes of Gd and Israel, of earning popular trust, is all-encompassing.

This is certainly true for our communal institutions.

One of the RCA's resolutions at this year's convention was on exactly this topic – the need for Jewish institutions to function with the greatest transparency, in order to build trust.

The wording of the resolution includes the message, “Let it be resolved that all Jewish communal institutions strive to attain levels of transparency regarding financial affairs, regarding the mechanism of leadership succession, and regarding the planning and execution of general business. Vehicles for attaining transparency include annual open meetings, featuring complete reports of their activities and financial condition, as well as periodic newsletters detailing current news and goals.

Iran or Meraglim or Tzedakah funds or communal instituions, it’s all about earning and maintaining trust.

And there’s one more area where transparency and trust-building are critically important: On talking to our children and grandchildren about our religious beliefs.

As parents and grandparents, we wrestle with the question of what to tell our children about illness, about family issues, about finances; we wonder when it's appropriate to include them in the knowledge that a parent lost a job, or that a relative has received a terminal diagnosis.

This question is all the more applicable for our personal spiritual struggles, our issues of faith and doubt, and I believe that pre-teen and teen children need to know their parents’ beliefs, as well as their parents’ skepticism, in an age-appropriate way.

As children near their teenage years, some younger, some older, they experience normal skepticism about all of the things they learn in school, and particularly the Jewish lessons which are contradicted by so much of society's input. How do I know the Torah is true? Where is Gd now, and where was Gd during the Holocaust? Is there really a Mashiach? What happens when people die?

When parents discuss these issues, and their own views, with their children, that open conversation can establish a trusting relationship that will last far into the future:
• It can prove to children that their parents are people of depth, and not rote observers of ritual;
• It can send the message that wondering and doubting are normal and healthy;
• It can provide answers for children’s questions, and it can provide lessons in how to deal with doubt;
• And it can establish a line of communication that children will, hopefully, exploit as they grow older.

The trust this establishes can be the difference between a child who rejects his parents’ path, and a child who chooses to follow it.

In his essay, “My Father’s Bourgeois Judaism,” Franz Kafka described being dragged to shul for Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur. He wrote to his father, “Four days a year you went to the synagogue, where you were, to say the least, closer to the indifferent than to those who took it seriously, patiently went through the prayers as a formality, sometimes amazed me by being able to show me in the prayer book the passage that was being said at the moment, and for the rest, so long as I was present in the synagogue (and this was the main thing) I was allowed to hang around wherever I liked. And so I yawned and dozed through the many hours (I don't think I was ever again so bored, except later at dancing lessons) and did my best to enjoy the few little bits of variety there were…

Kafka felt that his father never discussed the spiritual with him, and the result was a son who did not trust, and who rebelled and walked away.

Let’s model our parenting on HaShem’s act of sending the Meraglim, rather than the silence of Kafka’s father. When our children know that their vote counts, when they see that we permit them to take the donkey for a spin before buying it, then we will have earned their trust.


1. The midrash comparing sending the meraglim with selling a donkey is Sifri Devarim 21; the midrash on Moshe earning trust by making a full accounting is Tanchuma Pekudei 4. The Rama's comment is in Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 257:2.

2. Note that the meraglim trumped Gd in the drive for the nation's trust, by claiming that Gd really had been hiding information all along - the land is filled with giants, it's a harsh land, we've been duped, etc. It isn't until the beginning of Devarim that Gd, through Moshe, acknowledges to the people the residents of the land are mighty, etc.

3. Perhaps this desire for national trust is one reason why a nasi (leader of the Jewish people) is required to bring a unique korban if he sins. Bringing a normal sin-offering, hiding his transgression among the regular citizens, will not suffice; leaders must be honest with their citizenry.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Who needs rabbinic leadership?

The other day I quoted a 2007 survey performed by YU’s Center for the Jewish Future (in its Community Growth Initiative) on the way that young couples choose a community.

According to the CJF's published report, they surveyed 100 “young families” from Riverdale, Washington Heights, Teaneck, University of Pennsylvania, Einstein, Kew Gardens Hills and Holliswood.

The participants were from early 20s to early 30s, from newlyweds to families with 2-3 children under the age of 5. The great majority of the participants had grown up on Long Island (16.4%) or in Queens (14.4%); the highest-ranking non-NY/NJ hometowns were Chicago, LA and Philadelpha, each with 3.4% of the participants. There was no small community with 2% or more of the results.

As I explained in that previous post, these families ranked the importance of 12 factors for choosing a community. The overall result was:

1. Hashkafa
2. Choice of Day Schools
3. Affordable Housing
4. Job / Higher Education
5. Young Couples
6. Eruv
7. Values
8. Mikvah
9. Convenience
10. Proximity to Family
11. Rabbinic Leadership
12. Kosher Restaurants

Which led one commenter to note how low rabbinic leadership ranks in the survey results. To me, though, this makes perfect sense, for several reasons:

• As the study authors noted, younger families usually have not experienced a need for real pastoral involvement, as in helping people through severe illness or marshaling community resources in a crisis;

• As the study authors also noted, the families interviewed still had strong connections to their rebbeim from yeshiva and may not have seen the need for a communal posek or pastoral authority;

• The study authors also noted that a great percentage of the young families surveyed lived in apartment communities, without any substantive rabbinic presence. [Similarly, many of them ranked eruv and walking-distance mikvah low on the list; presumably they felt they could always build one easily enough, with or without rabbinic leadership?]

• I would also add that the young families surveyed likely had little awareness of what a rabbi does in a community, particularly a small community. Coming from Long Island, Brooklyn, Queens and Teaneck, their experience with community organization and growth would be entirely theoretical. Speaking for myself, I had no clue about the role of a rabbi in a non-New York community.

• And, finally but perhaps most crucially, good rabbinic leadership generally takes place behind the scenes, so that these families, and most families, would likely not be sensitive to it. If a rabbi does his job well – organizes help for people in need discreetly, works well with committees, arranges for shul and community decisions to flow properly – then no one knows what he has done.

So, no, I’m not that surprised by the result. I’m curious, though, as to what those same couples will say if they are re-surveyed five and ten years down the line.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

I love meetings (I'm not kidding)

[Some of the ideas here are reflected in this article on Committee Chairs, too.]

I spoke at our Federation’s annual meeting last night, and said something that earned a surprised laugh from a few participants: I Love Meetings.

But it’s true – I do.

Not all meetings, of course; I can’t stand meetings that have no agenda, meetings that are for the sake of meeting, meetings that never lead to action, meetings that serve the primary purpose of having people rehash past discussion or past accomplishments or irrelevancies. I have no stomach for sitting in a room for 45 minutes, an hour, an hour and a half or more, only to come out wondering what we accomplished.

But I love meetings that are well-planned, that involve passionate, creative people, that lead to a concrete purpose.

I love learning from other people’s thoughts. At this stage in life I know my own ideas fairly well, and I grow far more from hearing what other people believe and want. I certainly learn much from the words they choose to phrase their ideas, and the methods they develop for achieving their goals.

I love being motivated by people who are passionate about their goals, even if their goals are not relevant for me, and even if their goals are the opposite of mine. I may disagree, even vehemently, but it’s energizing and inspiring to hear people put forth a reasoned argument in which they really believe, without pretense and without arrogance.

I love feeling like I am part of a hard-working team, a group that is dedicated to developing a thoughtful approach to solve a problem. I love working with people who do their jobs between meetings, so that they come in with a full report on the things the rest of the team needs to know in order to move the operation forward.

I love watching a chair who knows what she is doing, who taps people for jobs not because they raised their hand but because they are best suited for the task, who devises clear priorities and procedures, updates everyone in a timely and helpful manner, and keeps the process moving.

I am playing with an idea, some type of leadership development program in which we could bring kids – early teens – to serious community meetings, and have them observe as well as contribute. Perhaps that would help them see what I see, become inspired as I am, and grow up to love meetings, too.

Monday, June 15, 2009

"Emerging Communities Fair" mostly about Jobs

Lots to contemplate from yesterday’s OU Emerging Communities Fair.

The scene was somewhat chaotic, with individuals and couples circulating randomly around the closely-placed tables of the 23 featured communities, but I’m not sure it could have been done any differently. I think that over-regimenting, by requiring specific registration for specific tables, would have been counter-productive. And there just wasn’t a better way to use the space.

Some communities emphasized their amenities; Dallas, for example, had a well-done brochure outlining all of its offerings. Others emphasized the way its young couples take active roles in the community; Memphis had life-size cut-outs of actual young families, for example. Ours was more of a collection of amenities and opportunities for involvement and jobs and we-aren’t-that-far-from-New-York.

Not everyone who visited was looking for an immediate move. Some people were there to do research for the future; others were investigating possibilities for an eventual could-be we-might relocation. And one or two were just there to have a good time, asking bizarre questions to amuse themselves and wasting the time of the sincere, earnest people staffing the booths.

Some people were looking but didn’t want to make it known… particularly those who came as representatives for one community but visited other tables, handing out resumes. A photographer there told me about couples who were afraid their families would find out they were considering leaving New York.

One thing’s for sure: Job ranked over every other factor for those who were seriously looking. Based on my conversation with dozens of the people making the rounds of the tables, most of them were simply looking for work, and anywhere they could get it. Not only in the obvious fields of finance and marketing, but in normally-solid fields like medicine and law.

YU’s Center for the Jewish Future did a survey (“Community Growth Initiative”) of young couples two years ago, to find out how they would choose a community. They offered 12 options, and asked participants to rank them by importance. This was the way the ranking worked out:

1. Hashkafa
2. Choice of Day Schools
3. Affordable Housing
4. Job / Higher Education
5. Young Couples
6. Eruv
7. Values
8. Mikvah
9. Convenience
10. Proximity to Family
11. Rabbinic Leadership
12. Kosher Restaurants

I have a lot of questions about the survey and the surveyed, but at the moment I’ll just say that if the survey would have been re-taken at the Fair yesterday, Job would have been #1, and there would not have been a #2.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Allentown: An Emerging Community

[First: A great new edition of Haveil Havalim is available here!]

I expect to be at the OU's Emerging Communities Fair for a few hours today, marketing my community of Allentown, PA - even as we are moving to Toronto in August, Gd-willing.

I know it sounds odd to be marketing a community as you are leaving, but (1) No one is in position to talk about a community like the shul rabbi is, and (2) I believe it is an emerging, strong community.

Of course, the ideal 'emerging community' is in Israel, where new communities are constantly emerging, where there are great schools, where you can find a great quality of life, etc. But for those who cannot make the leap for family, medical, financial or other reasons, Allentown is a great option.

Among other things, we have:
A warm, united community;
A community where everyone can come in and make a real difference in the shul, school, Federation and more;
A beautiful shul with a meaningful davening;
Morning and evening minyanim;
A ton of learning, from Daf Yomi to Conversational Hebrew;
A great new mikvah;
A well-maintained eruv;
Great parks and playgrounds;
NCSY and Bnei Akiva programming;
A great community Day School which tries to meet the needs of all students;
Lots of jobs;
Proximity to New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia.

That my family is leaving is largely a function of the absence of a Jewish high school, but for those for whom high school is not yet a factor, Allentown is worth a look, and then some!

So please stop in at our booth at Lander College, 277 W. 60th Street, today! I look forward to seeing you there.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Blacks and Jews

Note: I deliberately use the term “black” above, rather than “African-American,” because the issue is broader than North America.

This topic has been on my mind for a long time, but the specific catalyst for this article is the murder of Stephen Johns, an African-American, at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.

My problem is this: Why does it take a neo-Nazi who "was really prejudiced against blacks and Jews," to quote one news article, to bring Blacks and Jews into the same sentence?

I often hear family members tell each other at funerals, “I can’t believe I haven’t seen you since X’s funeral,” and, “We have to stop meeting in cemeteries.” This bothers me; people who take advantage of happy gatherings will not end up holding their only reunions around tombstones.

Well, the same is true for Jews and Blacks; we shouldn’t be getting together for funerals.

I am frustrated with myself as a rabbi in this regard; although I think meetings and joint events for these communities are important, I haven’t done enough to make them happen. I sat on a committee for one such community event, and my shul brought in a local Latino city councilman, Julio Guridy, for another, and we have participated in some community-wide service days, but that’s about it for the past eight years.

Why not more? Just because I get caught up in the million other responsibilities I carry. But, really, I could and should have done more with this over the years, and I'm sorry it's too late for me to do it here and now.

There are many reasons for tension between the Jewish community and (speaking regarding the US) the African-American community, and it's not about skin color:

• Jews are perceived to have “made it” in the US, and so are lumped together with those who oppress those who have not “made it.” Going back further in time, there were Jews in the slave trade; not many, but enough to be visible and enough to provide fodder for those who would sow division.

• In the other direction, the virulence of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, the anti-Jewish diatribes from various ministers and politicians, and the inherent insularity of the Jewish community, make Jews less likely to reach out.

• Add to this some significant cultural differences between the two communities, and the fact that the main challenges facing the two communities are quite different, and the result is that they – we – don’t get together too often.

It doesn’t need to be this way, and it should not be this way. There are Jews who are dark-skinned, both those born Jewish and those who converted to Judaism. Skin color is a pathetic reason for division between human beings.

We shouldn’t be getting together only to mourn a hero, or even for political expediency. As Rav Soloveitchik put it, “all of us speak the universal language of modern man.” I believe it is time we speak it together.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"Giving it to him" is usually a bad idea

A friend related that he had finally told off a very difficult person at work. “I really gave it to him,” he said. The conversation reminded me of a shul finance official who once told me he wanted to contact people who don’t pay their dues, and “really give it to them.”

(I suspect this is the sort of giving many people are actually contemplating when they say, “It’s better to give than to receive!”)

I’ve never found this tactic useful. I'll admit that I've done it a few times, but it's never accomplished anything positive, and it has generally yielded negative results.

Sure, unloading on someone allows me to express my frustration, but it's just that, an emotional reaction, not a reasoned strategy. Worse, it makes people defensive, it tells them they have gotten to me, it sounds like a child’s tantrum… it’s a negotiating disaster, in other words.

Juts look at the Torah’s classic example of "giving it to someone," Yaakov’s lecture to Lavan (Bereishit 31:36-42) after Lavan had chased him down and accused him of theft. I love this tirade. Translated loosely:

And Yaakov was angered, and he fought with Lavan, saying to him, “What is my rebellion, what is my transgression, that you lit out after me? You have felt through all of my possessions, what of your household items have you found? Place it here, before my brothers and yours, and let them identify the truth between us!

This is twenty years I’ve been with you, your ewes and goats never lost their young and I never ate any of your sheep. I never brought you a torn up animal; I made it up myself, you demanded it of my hand, whether it was stolen by day or by night.

I was consumed by dry heat in the day and frost by night, and sleep flew from my eyes. This is twenty years for me in your house, I worked for you for fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your sheep, and you even altered my salary ten times! If the Gd of my father, the Gd of Avraham and the One who awed Yitzchak, had not been with me, you would now have sent me away empty-handed! Gd has seen my poverty and the strain of my hands, and judged it last night.

That’s a great tirade, Yaakov really let loose on him. I love leining it; the words, combined with the trop notes, are so energized, so dramatic.

But what does Lavan do? Next sentence:

And Lavan asserted and said to Yaakov: The daughters are my daughters, the sons are my sons, the sheep are my sheep, and everything you see is mine…

“Giving it to him” doesn’t work, folks; it didn’t work for Yaakov, and it doesn’t work today.

Instead, Tanach’s recommendation (Mishlei 15:1) that ומענה רך ישיב חמה, “A soft assertion will settle anger,” works far better for me.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Rabbi Abhors Thursdays

"This must be Thursday," said Arthur to himself, sinking low over his beer, "I never could get the hang of Thursdays."
(Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

While it is true that, unlike Arthur Dent’s Earth, my planet does not normally get blown up on Thursdays, those days of the week are no less traumatic for me. More traumatic, actually; were Earth to simply disappear on Thursday, I would not need to worry about Shabbat derashot and classes and the kiddush and Sunday’s shiurim, etc.

Of course, the most likely timing is that I would work insanely all day Thursday to prepare the various items, finish or retire for the night at 11:58 PM, only to have the world blow up at 11:59 PM.

Some rabbis, I have heard, are more bothered by Fridays, but not me. I think it’s because I have low expectations for Fridays; I write them off in advance as utter chaos, try not to schedule any serious work for those days, and then survive them by running from one thing to the next to the next.

Thursdays, on the other hand, are a disaster. Even though I set aside time to prepare the derashah etc, other communal and individual needs inevitably develop and require immediate attention, and by the end of the day I’m frantically thinking, “I can’t afford to leave any of this for Friday!” Not to mention I have a standing 5 AM appointment on Friday mornings, which (theoretically) necessitates getting to bed on Thursday night by 11 PM…

The gemara agrees with me, I’m happy to say, that Thursday is supposed to be the prep day for Shabbos. The gemara talks about shopping for Shabbos on Thursday and taking haircuts on Thursday; they knew what I am talking about. Yosef Mokir Shavi (Shabbos 119a) may be running around buying up all the fish on Friday afternoon, but I’m with Shammai (Beitzah 16a) – if I have to choose between the chance of landing Yosef’s world-class gem or keeping my sanity, I’ll go with the sanity, thank you very much.

Of course, you might ask, “Why is this post here on Tuesday? Thursday isn’t for another two days!”

But if you have been reading attentively, you know why – because every Thursday I think about writing this post, but the world intrudes, as do my Shabbos preparations, and it never happens. So here it is, on Tuesday, and should the world not explode on Thursday, feel free to re-read it then.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Of course it's the computer's fault (or the horse's fault, if you're a Hamasnik)

Sitting in the airport waiting on a flight to Toronto, I scanned this week's email from ScienceDaily and found this gem:

Students who get stuck look for computer malfunctions

When students attempting to solve a mathematical problem, were informed by the computer that their answer was incorrect, they often focused on trying to find the reasons for this in the functions of the educational software itself.

"They would maintain that their answers merely needed to be rephrased, that the computer's answers were wrong in the same way as answers on an answer key of a mathematics textbook could be wrong, or provided other similar explanations," says Annika Lantz-Andersson.

Does this really surprise anyone who has ever dealt with (a) computers, (b) students, or (c) human beings in general? [The article does not indicate the age of the students, but I'd guess high school.]

I'll bet the Hamas attackers in this story blamed their hi-tech option, the horses...

One noteworthy element in the story:
"There is a kind of silence in the relationship between students and the educational software they use. The computer never gets tired, is not bothered by endless examples of random answers, does not distinguish between students, but on the other hand cannot provide individually-fitted feedback, which is one of the most important tasks of a teacher", she continues.

This reminds me of one of the major reasons why Torah sheb'al peh, the spoken Torah (midrash/mishnah/gemara), was meant to be kept verbal rather than written. The ideal teacher/student relationship requires bi-directional feedback, which will never occur with a written text.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Saga of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenos

[The new Haveil Havalim is here!]

Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenos is on my mind today, thanks to a class I taught about him yesterday.

Among many interesting facts:
Rabbi Eliezer underwent severe deprivation and bucked his family in order to study Torah (see below).
He was ex-communicated by the sages, and lived with it for the rest of his life (see Bava Metzia 59b).
A voice from heaven declared that he is always right (see Bava Metzia 59b).
And more than anyone else, Rabbi Eliezer was the sage he molded Rabbi Akiva (see Sanhedrin 68, for example).

Here are his origins, from Avot d’Rabbi Natan 6:3 -

What was the beginning for Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenos?

He was 22 years old and he had not studied Torah. Once, he said, ‘I will go learn Torah before Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai.’ His father Hurkenos told him, ‘You will not taste food until you plow a full measure.’ He woke early and plowed a full measure.

They say that this day was Friday, and he went to eat at his father-in-law; alternatively, he ate nothing from midday Friday until midday on Sunday. When he was traveling he saw a stone, hallucinated, picked it up and put it in his mouth. Alternatively, it was cattle dung.

He stayed at a host, and went to sit before Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai in Yerushalayim until a bad smell came from his mouth. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said to him, ‘Eliezer, my son, didn’t you eat today?’ He was silent.

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai called the host and asked, ‘Did Eliezer eat with you at all today?’ They said, ‘We thought he was eating with Rebbe.’ He said, ‘And I thought he ate with you! Between us, we lost R’ Eliezer in the middle!’

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said to him: Just as a bad smell went forth from your mouth, so a good name in Torah should go forth for you.

His father Hurkenos heard that he was learning Torah with Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai; he said, ‘I will vow that my son Eliezer not benefit from my property!’

They say, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was teaching in Yerushalayim that day, with all of the leaders of Israel sitting before him. He heard that Hurkenos had come, and he set up guards and instructed them not to allow Hurkenos to sit before him.

Hurkenos came to sit, and the guards would not permit it. He skipped upward until he reached Ben Tzitzit haKeset and Nakdimon ben Gurion and Ben Kalba Savua; he sat among them, trembling [due to the elite company among whom he sat].

They say that on that day, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai set his eyes on R’ Eliezer and told him, ‘Begin and teach!’ He said, ‘I cannot begin.’ Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai pressed him, as did the students, and he began and taught things no ear had ever heard. With every utterance that came from his mouth, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai stood and kissed his head and said, ‘Rabbi Eliezer, my rebbe, you have taught me truth!’

Before the time came for him to depart, his father Hurkenos stood and declared, ‘My masters, I came only to vow that my son Eliezer not benefit from my property; now, all of my property is given to my son Eliezer, and all of his brothers have no share at all.’

Of particular interest to me and the parallels between his story, and that of his student Rabbi Akiva, including:

1) Both started to learn relatively late in life;

2) Both were disowned, Rabbi Akiva through his father-in-law and Rabbi Eliezer through his father (although for opposite reasons – Rabbi Akiva for his ignorance, Rabbi Eliezer for his desire to learn), and both were re-claimed when they excelled in their studies;

3) Both studied Torah despite great deprivation;

4) Both were men of great humility; Rabbi Akiva studies with his young son (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 6:2) and Rabbi Eliezer refuses to teach until he is forced to do so.

Just something on my mind today.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Israel is not Made in Germany (Derashah Naso 5769)

These words from this past Thursday are now famous:

[T]he aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied. Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust.

I appreciate President Obama’s earlier re-statement of the ‘unbreakable’ bond between the US and Israel, but I must protest this re-writing of the birth of the modern state of Israel.

Israel was not built in Roman brutality. Israel was not manufactured by Muslim massacres at Khaibar and along the Mediterranean. Israel was not created by Christian Crusades or European expulsions or the Catholic Inquisition or the pogroms of the Cossacks, and Israel certainly was not made in Germany.

Israel was made in Israel, thousands of years ago. We have more than our own Torah as evidence; we have the testimony of pottery shards and the Mesha stele and the historical memory of numerous races.

Israel is not a product of our enemies’ venomous anti-Semitism, but a product of our proud Torah and our proud ancestry.

Of course, President Obama’s speechwriters were not the first to view Israel, primarily, as a haven from our enemies.

Moses Hess wrote in 1862, [T]he Jews in exile, at least the majority of them, cannot devote themselves successfully to productive labor: in the first place, because they lack the most necessary condition - an ancestral soil; and, secondly, because they cannot assimilate with the peoples among whom they live without being untrue to their national religion and tradition. The irony, of course, is that Hess fulfilled his own dire prediction by marrying a Catholic woman.

Leo Pinsker wrote, twenty years later, We need nothing but a large piece of land for our poor brothers, a piece of land which shall remain our property, from which no foreign master can expel us. This was the idea behind the Uganda movement, which sought to acquire territory in East Africa for a Jewish land at a time when a return to Israel seemed unlikely.

Certainly, this approach of “Israel as Safe Haven” has an internal logic as well as a legitimate pedigree in modern Jewish and world history – but serious weaknesses undermine its meaning and application today.

First, what are we to make of a Jewish nation which so values its own survival that it will ride roughshod over the survival of other human beings in order to achieve it? If we desire Israel for the sake of our own security, do we not have a responsibility to help Palestinian Arabs find their security? Indeed, that was part of the president’s point of moral equivalence.

Second, in an age when millions of Jews feel comfortable and secure living outside of Israel, do we have the right to demand a homeland for our safety? Even if the world is not entirely safe for the Jew, we don’t see the Jews of North America or Australia expressing concern for their future!

And third, and most crucial for me today: Israel in the Torah was never meant to be a function of our enemies’ hatred; rather, Israel is supposed to be a positive expression of Judaism. It is the place where, as recorded in the Torah, our ancestors walked. It is the place where, according to the gemara, we can achieve purification from our sins. It is the place where, as Ramban noted, our mitzvot are real. It is the place where, as Rav Kook wrote, the Jewish heart can connect to Gd.

Indeed, in our own parshah, this is what the Nazir fails to understand regarding the Torah itself.

The nazir vows to abstain - for a period of time or indefinitely – from drinking intoxicating beverages, from contact with impurity, and from cutting his hair. These abstentions guarantee one thing: The Nazir will withdraw from society. He will drink with no one, he will mix with no one lest they contaminate him, he will grow his hair until it is long and tangled and dirty; he will become a hermit.

The gemara paints nezirut as a safety option taken by a Jew who feels that he is out of control, threatened by his own desires, but the gemara goes on to argue that this is not the purpose of Judaism and its Torah. The Torah labels nezirut a חטא, a sin; the Torah and its mitzvot are not about escaping this world for a spiritual place of our own, they are about developing and growing into model human beings.

And the same is true for Israel. Our homeland is not a mousehole to which the Jew can run and hide from the big bad Nazi. Israel is a place for the Jew to be a Jew.

But there’s a catch. If we really disagree with the President and believe what I just said, if we really believe that Israel is not only about safety but rather about creating a place where a Jew can live and develop as a Jew, if we buy the arguments of Tanach and the gemara and the Kuzari and so on, then we should all be rushing to live there, now.

Were Israel only a mousehole for protection, we could stay out of the mousehole until the cat came along. But if Israel is truly a religious imperative, then why aren’t we there, now? I don’t speak of those who have medical or financial or family reasons and the like for remaining in galut, but for the rest of us, is there any question as to where we belong?

The president’s speech should not be a simple opportunity for politicking; rather, it should be a challenge to us, all of us, a chance for us to think. If we don’t accept his narrative, if we do not view Israel as the nazir views Judaism, as an escape hatch, then let us ask ourselves what narrative we do accept, and put it into practice.

1. Before you ask, "What about you, Torczyner?" know that I am in one of the categories mentioned above.

2. You can find the president's remarks here. Pinsker (Auto-Emancipation) and Hess (Rome and Jerusalem) are excerpted in Herzberg's excellent The Zionist Idea.

3. Re: Nazir - I presented the midrashic rationale for nazir, but I wonder about another type of nazir, someone who chooses nezirut as a way to fuel passion and direct intensity, as might arguably be observed in Shimshon, Shemuel and Avshalom.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Rav Kook's approach to the chalutzim

My learning background is decidedly not Rav Kook-oriented; his mashiach-oriented view of Israel/world/history, and his chassidic/mystical view the individual neshamah and the national neshamah don't mix well with the sources which have framed my way of looking at the world.

Nonetheless, I find Rav Kook's writing compelling, on many levels.

One of the elements I truly appreciate is the way Rav Kook is unapologetically fierce in his views, judgmental to the hilt, and yet, simultaneously, he is honest about the good he perceives in those whose views differ from his own.

This is especially clear when Rav Kook describes the secular chalutzim (pioneers) of his day. He tells you exactly what he thinks about their religious views, even as he expresses great respect for their traits which he considers admirable.

Case in point - Chazon haGeulah pg. 102-103, 105:
Among many of our generation, we find that despite their descent from recognizing the content of the soul of the Torah, and despite the fact that they have strayed from the path of Gd and rejected religious law and sanctity and selected the path of the heretics of the nations, with all of that, social justice lives in their hearts in a great and mighty way, and they adhere to the rational and ethical mitzvot to the point of surrendering their lives…

Let us now gauge their level of ethics relative to the humaneness of the masses of every nation and tongue, who dwell upon their own land, and relative to the state of our own nation in an earlier generation.

We must acknowledge that they stand on a level which is so elevated that it would be fitting for us to praise them before the eyes of the entire world.

This stands in stark contrast to the popular approach to embracing those with whom we disagree. Many rabbis today seem to feel a need to eliminate their own judgment in the name of pluralism, to avoid all criticism in order to work in partnership with those whose views differ.

Not so Rav Kook. Rav Kook is often portrayed as a grandfatherly, Wilford Brimley-esque (or perhaps Carlebachian) rabbi standing arm-in-arm with shirtless kibbutzniks and smiling upon their secularism, but that's not the picture that emerges from his writing. He calls it as he sees it. "I think they have descended and have embraced the paths of heretics - but I love and admire them for their social ideals."

This is openness I can believe in, a warm and sincere appreciation expressed with authentic sincerity.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

“Israel is the most important/intractable problem in the Muslim world”

Really, it's right here on CNN's website: The Arab-Israeli conflict is the most important, most intractable problem in the Muslim world. (See end of post for an update on CNN's recent editing of this sentence.)

Certainly, much of the Arab world, as well as Israel’s opponents in Europe and the US, like to promote this worldview.

It makes sense for the Arab world to do this; what better way to get what you want, than to say, ‘If you just give me this, I’ll be happy and stop killing you?’

But it’s nonsense – utter and complete nonsense. Off-hand, I can list ten problems in the Muslim world that are more important, or more intractable, or both:

• The Sunni-Shiite clashes, which kill far more Muslims each year than anything going on in Israel
• The murder of Muslims in Darfur
• The rights of women in Muslim countries
• Poverty in Indonesia
• Muslim-Hindu conflicts in India and Pakistan
• The rights of homosexuals and Christians (how's that for a combination?) in Muslim countries
• Kashmir, and the India-Pakistan wars in general
• The stranglehold of Arab emirates on the economies of their countries
• The reliance of Arab governments and economies on oil profits
• The hostility between Iran and its allies on one side, and Egypt and its allies on the other

And, yes, there are more; we haven’t even touched Iran’s nuclear ambitions, or the whole cultural crisis of Islam and Westernization, or Chechnya, or the Balkans, for example.

So “Israel is the most important and most intractable issue in the Muslim world?” Who are you trying to kid, CNN?

When Osama bin Laden attacked the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the Palestinian issue was not even part of his agenda; his agenda was explicitly stated as ridding the Middle East of US presence and influence. It was only after he was criticized in the Arab world for ignoring the Palestinian/Israeli issue, that he added it to the mix.

Let’s be honest here, folks. The Israeli/Palestinian issue is not even in the Top 10, and never has been.

Why don’t we call it for what it is? It’s a distraction from the real problems facing the Muslim world, a way to deflect attention from major issues and keep the powerful and oil-rich on their thrones.

[Update, 1 PM EDT: They have now updated the sentence to reflect a marginally more nuanced view. Now, it reads: Arabs and Muslims wait to hear his words on their most important, most intractable problem: the Arab-Israeli conflict. By adding "Arabs" they hope to remove issues like Chechnya and Pakistan from the calculus. But it's still phony, as seen in the list of items above.]

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Fish Storm

I learned a new term yesterday, courtesy of CNN.com: Fish storm.

The article covered predictions for the year’s hurricane season, and the particular sentence read, Tropical Depression One then drifted over cooler ocean waters and turned out to be merely a "fish storm," one that remains at sea and poses no threat to land.

In other words, a “fish storm” is a storm that affects only the fish, not human beings.

Of course, the term is inaccurate, on multiple levels – the storm can affect boaters and fishermen, it can affect beach erosion through increased wave activity, it can affect butterflies in Tokyo, and so on. Nonetheless, I love the term, because it perfectly describes the way we manage our responsibilities toward the world.

Fish Storm is a defense mechanism, a natural reflex to protect me from the world. “It’s not my problem,” as they say.

I write off certain news stories as fish storms, and move on without reading them. Sometimes this reflex is a good thing, such as when the story is about the latest Ashton Kutcher-Twitter kerfuffle, or Filipe Fa and the World’s Biggest Loser. But other times it reflects a desire to run away from serious issues, such as when stories about North Korea, Tajikistan or Darfur come up on the page. Those aren’t fish storms; I just want to treat them that way.

The fish storm defense mechanism comes up in the rabbinate a lot. A trivial example: We hold a “Kever Avos” memorial service at the cemetery before Rosh HaShanah, and many people request that I say a Kel Malei Rachamamim (memorial prayer) at their relatives’ graves. I pass the grave of someone who doesn’t have any living relatives, or whose relatives didn’t request it. Do I say a Kel Malei? Do I then stop and say one for every person buried in the cemetery?

Similarly, think of the million-man Mi sheBeirach list, which is so long because various people in shul received names of ill people in emails years ago and have not heard any update on their conditions.

Those examples are relatively trivial, but a rabbi's overreaching OCD has no end short of burnout, and can apply in many and diverse areas – teaching innumerable classes because someone, somewhere, wants to learn; contacting every potentially needy person to make sure they are all right; reworking and reworking derashos and articles out of concern for hitting every listener/reader just right. Sometimes you need to declare Fish Storm and write it off.

We actually just came across the same idea in Daf Yomi the other day. Bava Metzia 33a talks about my obligation to help an animal which is sprawled under a heavy burden, and it places a limit on how far out of my way I need to travel to offer assistance. We need that limit, both to provide a Fish Storm limit for those who will try to save everyone, and to forestall the Fish Storm response for those who wish to save no one.

“Fish Storm,” indeed. I like it.