Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Class: Physicians and Intimate Care of Patients

I expect to give a class next week on physicians and intimate examinations. I hope to cover the following vignettes, and I'd appreciate feedback on them:

A. Charles, a medical student, wishes to become an OB/GYN, but he knows that halachah severely restricts men from seeing female genitalia or touching the female body. May he train as an OB/GYN, or need he change medical tracks?

B. Sally is a physical therapist, and her job requires her to manipulate the limbs of patients, both male and female, but halachah prohibits physical contact between women and men who are not their husbands and this is not a life-saving treatment. May Sally treat male patients?

C. Jason, a resident doing an OB/GYN rotation, is on rounds when his group enters the room of an unconscious female patient. The physician leading rounds instructs Jason to perform a pelvic exam, but permission has not been requested from the patient. May Jason conduct the exam?

D. Jonathan, a psychologist, conducts therapy sessions for men and women in the privacy of his office. Halachah prohibits men from being secluded with women who are not their wives. How may he treat female patients?

[Regarding case C, I was floored to be shown articles here, here and here. Granted that the stories are not as simple as presented, it still shocks me. Gd bless the litigious American society, in which there would be strong repercussions for that sort of thing.]

Monday, November 28, 2011

Do you run your synagogue "like a business"?

[The Kosher Cooking Carnival for Kislev is now on-line here]

Over the years, I've heard people say, from time to time, "We should run our synagogue like a business." This sentiment generally arises when discussing budget deficits, charging for shul programs, and raising dues.

I understand what they mean to suggest. They mean, "We should not give aliyot / classes / the rabbi's time away for free," "We should charge people based on the cost of our programs / staff time / facility maintenance."

What they don't really mean to suggest is, "We should run our synagogue like a business." Indeed, one board member of mine once commented that this sort of suggestion is rarely heard from people who have actually run businesses.

To me, running a shul like a business means studying the potential consumer base, broadening and deepening the product line, lowering the cost of entry, investing serious time and money in advertising, and building a community of committed consumers who will network with their friends to promote your product.

Businesses certainly do give things away for free. Businesses do not charge for their products/services based on their real costs. Businesses provide loss leaders and other incentives to get people in the door – just as synagogues do, actually.

I know of synagogues which think it "business-like" to charge people to be on the shul mailing list. But what business would do that? Businesses would gladly pay you for permission to send you information – and they do, regularly, in the form of raffles and the like which are created solely in order to harvest names and contact information.

I know of synagogues which think it "business-like" to publicize their programs only to their members. Is that "running the synagogue like a business"? What business would do that? Is this an attempt to squelch growth?

The truth is that synagogues have a hard time developing a good business model, because much of their product is generally available for free. It's hard to come up with a system by which the synagogue can provide a full range of services and survive economically. But if we think the answer is to run the synagogue "like a business", then let's do it for real – studying the market, designing a great product, reaching out, making sure our services are priced right, and welcoming in the masses of people we will doubtless attract.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Better to Give?

A quick thought that came to me as I woke up this morning:

Do we gauge the value of tzedakah based on what the recipient gets, or based on what the donor provides?

From a utilitarian ["Did the indigent receive help"] perspective, we would look at the benefit to the recipient – if I give him something he can’t use, there’s no mitzvah. If someone is starving and I give him a roll of gift wrap, I have not fulfilled my obligation. After all, the biblical mandate of די מחסורו, “Give whatever he lacks,” dictates that I base my gift on his needs.

On the other hand, from a mitzvah ["Did you fulfill your obligation"] perspective we do calculate based on what I give. Case: If I give an indigent person a ride to his relatives for Yom Tov, and it’s a 200 mile trip so that I saved him a great deal of money, that’s a tzedakah contribution. However, if I was going in that direction anyway then I can’t count that toward my maaser kesafim, my 10% tithe, because I didn’t actually give away anything.

Perhaps it’s a difference between the mitzvah of tzedakah and the practice of maaser kesafim, of tithing my income. For tzedakah purposes, we gauge by the recipient. For maaser, we gauge based on what I gave?

I think there’s a lot more to say here, but it’s time to go. Perhaps I'll add more later.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Class: How to write in your siddur

On Wednesday night I'm delivering a shiur for women on "How to write in your siddur", a development based on the blog posts that appear here and here.

Here is the majority of my source sheet, excluding passages which I'll use for a "Writing Workshop". [UPDATE: The audio of the session is now available here.]:

Why use a siddur
1. Talmud Yerushalmi, Berachot 2:4
נתפלל ומצא עצמו בשומע תפילה חזקה כוין... א"ר חייא רובא אנא מן יומיי לא כיונית אלא חד זמן בעי מכוונה והרהרית בלבי ואמרית מאן עליל קומי מלכא קדמי ארקבסה אי ריש גלותא שמואל אמר אנא מנית אפרוחיא רבי בון בר חייא אמר אנא מנית דימוסיא א"ר מתניה אנא מחזק טיבו לראשי דכד הוה מטי מודים הוא כרע מגרמיה
One who prays and finds himself at 'shomeia tefillah' may assume he had proper intent… R' Chiyya the Great said: I never concentrated properly; once I tried to concentrate, and then I began to wonder who goes before the king first, the officer or the exilarch. Shemuel said: I count clouds (other editions: birds). R' Bun bar Chiyya said: I could bricks. R' Matniyah said: I am grateful to my head, for when I reach Modim it bows on its own!

2. Tosefta Shabbat 13:4
הברכות אע"פ שיש בהן מאותות השם ומענינות הרבה שבתורה אין מצילין אותן אבל נשרפין במקומן מכן אמרו כותבי ברכות כשורפי תורה
Even though blessings contain the letters of the Name and many matters of Torah, one may not save them; they are burned where they are. Therefore they said: Those who write blessings are as those who burn Torah.

3. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tefilah 4:19
תפלות הפרקים כגון תפלת מוסף ראש חדש ותפלת מועדות צריך להסדיר תפלתו ואחר כך עומד ומתפלל כדי שלא יכשל בה
One must arrange his prayer for special occasions, such as musaf for Rosh Chodesh and prayers of holidays, and then stand and pray, so that he will not stumble.

4. Pri Megadim, Orach Chaim 53 Mishbetzot Zahav 15
ויש קהלות כותבין על קלף סידור מיוחד לש"ץ להתפלל מתוכו ונכון הוא, וראוי אף ליחיד להתפלל מתוך הסידור...
In some communities they write a special siddur for the chazan to use, and this is appropriate; it is appropriate even for individuals to pray from a siddur…

5. Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 96:2
מותר לאחוז מחזור תפלות בידו בשעה שמתפלל הואיל ותופס לצורך תפלה עצמה לא טריד...
One may hold a book of prayers in his hand when praying; he will not be distracted since he holds it for prayer…

Our problems: Fixed text; Blob of text; Familiarity
6. Mishnah Berachot 4:4
רבי אליעזר אומר העושה תפלתו קבע אין תפלתו תחנונים
R' Eliezer said: One who makes his prayer 'fixed' – his prayer is not a proper plea.

7. Talmud, Bava Batra 164b-165a
שלש עבירות אין אדם ניצול מהן בכל יום הרהור עבירה ועיון תפלה ולשון הרע לשון הרע סלקא דעתך אלא אבק לשון הרע
One is not saved from three sins daily: Thoughts of immorality, examination of prayer, and [almost] harmful speech.

8. Rambam, Moreh haNevuchim 3:51
אם תתפלל בהנעת שפתיך ופניך אל הכותל ואתה חושב במקחך וממכרך... תהיה אז קרוב ממי שנאמר בהם, קרוב אתה בפיהם ורחוק מכליותיהם.
Should you pray with movement of your lips and your face to the wall but think about your commerce… you will be close to those regarding whom it is written, 'You are close to their mouths, but far from their innards.'

Writing in a siddur?
9. Mishneh Berurah 96:9
ונמצא באחרונים שאף בחזרת הש"ץ נכון הוא שיהיה הסידור פתוח לפניו להיות אזניו פקוחות על מה שאומר הש"ץ
The acharonim wrote that it is also appropriate to hold an open siddur during repetition of the amidah, so that one's ears will be open to that which the chazan says.

10. Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 90:23
הבגדים המצויירים.. אין נכון להתפלל כנגדם, ואם יקרה לו להתפלל כנגד בגד או כותל מצויר, יעלים עיניו. הגה: ולכן אסור ג"כ לצייר ציורים בספרים שמתפללין בהן, שלא תתבטל הכוונה
One should not pray opposite clothes with designs… and if one happens to pray opposite a garment or wall with a picture, he should close his eyes.
Rama: Therefore, one may not draw pictures in the books from which we pray, lest that prevent concentration.

11. Alternatives: http://lauramiller.typepad.com/lauramiller/2009/03/how-to-write-in-a-book.html

Practical tips
1. Mark phrases for special concentration
2. Mark structural/poetic elements that provide greater meaning
3. Add wake-up calls
4. Mark lines requiring explanation
5. Write in food for thought

Writing notes
1. Pencil, small marks, change them regularly
2. Spread marks throughout the various prayers
3. Be ready to replace your siddur
4. Don't distract from the davening

In lieu of the Workshop, here are some examples of items I have marked in my current siddur:
* Words and phrases for special concentration - ואהבת, באהבה, והשב את העבודה לדביר ביתך, ולעבדו בלבב שלם

* Poetic/structural elements - The imperatives in Mizmor l'Todah; The 3 types of Divine action requested in Al haTzaddikim; the theme-aligned sets of lines in Avinu Malkeinu; the two halves of Emes v'Emunah (across time / Yetzias Mitzrayim)

* Wake-up calls - Alerts for Shma, Morid haGeshem, Refa'einu

* Lines that require explanation - והושיענו למען שמך, שיבנה בית המקדש במהרה בימינו ותן חלקנו בתורתך

* Food for thought - Rav Kook's explanation of בעל מלחמות זורע צדקות, the two roles of Avinu and Malkeinu, the difference between a shofar and a nes in T'ka b'shofar.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Buying the nicest menorah for myself

After the Jews cross through Yam Suf they sing, זה קלי ואנוהו, which the gemara (Shabbos 133b) renders as 'I will glorify Him'. We are to use a beautiful succah, lulav, shofar and so on; this is the concept called 'hiddur mitzvah'.

But here is my question: Is hiddur mitzvah supposed to be a selfish value? Or are we meant to take it less literally, as an imperative to beautify mitzvos in general, including those performed by others? In other words: Have I fulfilled 'hiddur mitzvah' by purchasing a nice mitzvah item for someone else?

In my years as a shul rabbi in charge of distributing the shul's lulav and esrog sets, I never looked in the esrog boxes before selecting my own. I always paid for an esrog of a certain level, and took one of the boxes marked at that level without opening various boxes to compare the products within. [Other than the embarrassing year when a vendor specifically gave me a 'special' esrog – which raised serious questions of bribery in my mind.]

My logic was simple: If I take the nicest esrog, then I will have the most beautiful esrog and someone else will be forced to settle for less. I shouldn't have a beautiful mitzvah at the expense of someone else. Just last week I heard about a rosh yeshiva in Israel (I forget whom) who has the same practice – he takes a less-beautiful esrog, and leaves the nicest one for someone else. So I'm not the only one doing this.

In support of this approach, one could argue that 'beautiful' has multiple meanings: Holding an aesthetically appealing esrog is one type of beauty, but another, deeper beauty is found in offering aesthetically appealing esrogim to others. Perhaps if I enable someone else to perform a mitzvah beautifully, I can claim 'credit' for hiddur mitzvah.

But is that really a correct application of hiddur mitzvah? Perhaps we are meant to feel a degree of selfishness regarding our personal relationship with Gd.

Let's turn the question to Chanukah, since that's coming up: Is it better for me to buy a beautiful menorah for myself and let others use their less-nice models, or for me to give a less-fortunate person money so that he will be able to use a beautiful menorah, and I'll make do with an older, cheaper menorah? Or: In a family with multiple menorot, should I take a less-nice menorah, to permit another to use a better one? [Yes, I know it's actually a chanukiah. No, I'm not about to start calling it that.]

We might draw on the Mishneh Berurah's comments (694:3) regarding the Purim Seudah, when he says it would be better for a person to enjoy a basic meal and use the rest of his funds to increase his gifts to the needy for their Purim meals – but that's a Purim-related halachah, and not really about hiddur mitzvah.

I'm not sure.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

We don't do Worship

A couple of weeks ago, on a Sunday morning, I turned on the car radio and scanned for a station when a sentence from Yeshayah (40:12) caught my ear – as JPS renders it, "Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance?"

The speaker, a minister I assume, charged his audience: Gd is so great that He can hold the mountains in His hand! We can't even lift a heavy rock, and He can pick up all of the mountains and put them on a scale! How amazing He is! How mighty He is! We should all worship Him! How can we do anything but worship Him?!

I was left absolutely cold, and I wondered how anyone living in North America today could be left anything but cold by this call. Because Gd is big and strong, therefore we should worship Him?

First, the logic itself is poor. By this argument, should I also worship some person who is stronger than me? What about a person with a bigger gun than me? True, Judaism's classic approach is to be wowed by Divine might. We praise Gd for His might. But we don't use it as a reason for worship (I think, although I am not certain).

But beyond the logical argument, I see a cultural problem which might be endemic to North America but which poses a challenge to all Gd-centered religion: The whole idea of Worship is passe. Unmitigated devotion and respect and awe, dedicating myself to the service of another, is weird and out of place in our society. Even as our religious identity is informed by Psalms and framed by prayer, our cultural identity finds Psalms curious and prayer uncomfortable. Even were we to accept the minister's "Might makes right" philosophy, we could not easily go from "Right" to "Serve the One who is Right".

What happens when people read Psalm 150 in translation: "Praise Him with the shofar blast, Praise Him with the lyre and the harp, Praise Him with drum and dance, Praise Him with…"? I wonder how many people, particularly those unfamiliar with the synagogue and new to Jewish prayer, have trouble relating to those sentences.

To me, this discomfort is a product of our individualistic culture. Our cultural icons of the past 60-70 years have made much of their rebellious streaks; would James Dean worship? Elvis? How about Brando? Wayne? Bronson? De Niro? Pacino? Eastwood? Stallone? Clooney? Crowe? Jackman? 1940's Captain America would worship - but modern Batman? Never. [For some reason, I could imagine some of the parallel females being worshipful; the tough-guy character is not always seen in them. And, I'm not as familiar with them.]

Many of us find our way to Worship despite this problem, but I sense it is more an exercise of free will and choice than a sense of obligation, along the lines of gratitude and recognition of Goodness. I'm not entirely convinced this is ideal, though.

What do you think? Am I off-base? What is the driver for your worship?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

And it was, in the middle of the night

As Douglas Adams wrote of his protagonist, Arthur Dent, in Chapter 8 of So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish:
He almost danced to the fridge, found the three least hairy things in it, put them on a plate and watched them intently for two minutes. Since they made no attempt to move within that time he called them breakfast and ate them. Between them they killed a virulent space disease he'd picked up without knowing it in the Flargathon Gas Swamps a few days earlier, which otherwise would have killed off half the population of the Western Hemisphere, blinded the other half, and driven everyone else psychotic and sterile, so the Earth was lucky there.

I like that passage because it reminds me of strange hypotheses I had occasionally as a child, wondering if I had been immortal until I had eaten celery, or if turning right instead of left had saved me from some hideous disaster. I've always been addicted to the idea that a given moment, action or day might have unusual significance, which I could know if only I were a little wiser or more perceptive.

This idea survived my childhood; I still attach significance to the memories of nights preceding significant changes in my life: The night before I married the esteemed Rebbetzin, the night before I began as Rabbi in Rhode Island, the night before my job interview in Allentown (ah, the Ramada at the Malls in Whitehall – definitely not recommended, at least as it was in late 2000). Those were times of real change.

And then, of course, there were "nights before" when I thought something might occur, but that foreshadowed nothing at all – nights before plane flights when I wondered whether something might happen en route, moments during birkas hachodesh (the synagogue blessing of the new lunar month) when I thought this might be the month when I sold a manuscript, times when I bought a Powerball ticket and considered what would happen if this really was it.

This post is more than just a personal musing, though, because it strikes me that this idea of significant "nights before" is a central message in "ויהי בחצי הלילה, And it was, in the middle of the night," the Pesach Seder song which recounts watershed events from Tanach which occurred in the middle of the night. Rescues and vengeances and messages of portent for individuals and nations impact with shattering force at the apex of darkness, the moment when the balance tilts toward dawn.

I believe one of the themes conveyed in "And it was, in the middle of the night," is that every night has a middle of the night, every night is a potential "night before", every night can usher in salvation. ויהי ערב ויהי בקר, there is evening and then there is morning, and a new phase of Creation is struck.

To the Jew, every night can be more than just a joining of days, can in fact be a bridge between the mundane past and a glorious future. What remains is for us to capitalize on the opportunity… or to eat the three least hairy things in the fridge, anyway.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A different view of Shabbos

["Wow, now that's going to cause trouble" post of the day, at Life in Israel]

Jewish literature is replete with diverse praises of Shabbos for its regenerative and social elements:
• It's a day of rest from creativity, time to curl up with a good book, time to recharge.
• It's an opportunity to connect with spouses and children and siblings and friends.
• It's a chance to gather as a religious community, for study and prayer and – of course – kiddush.

Just look at the song מה ידידות, an educational poem traced to 11th century Germany, which describes the day as a time for eating, singing, learning with children, sleeping and enjoying.

But here's a description that doesn't get much airtime: Shabbos is a day to retreat from everything and everyone, and communicate with Gd. No family, no friends, no books, no garrulous kiddush.


Talmud Yerushalmi, Shabbos 15:3
אמר רבי חנינא מדוחק התירו לשאול שלום בשבת אמר רבי חייא בר בא רבי שמעון בן יוחי כד הוה חמי לאימיה משתעיא סגין הוה אמר לה אימא שובתא היא
Rabbi Chanina said: It was only with difficulty that they permitted greeting people on Shabbat. Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba said: When Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai saw his mother speaking a great deal, he would say, 'Mother, it's Shabbos!'

Maimonides, Commentary to Mishnah, Shabbos 23:2
הטעם שאסרו למנותם מן הכתב שמא יקרא אגרות בשבת, וזה אסור, שכל זולת ספרי הנבואה ופירושיהם אסור לקרותו לא בשבת ולא ביום טוב, ואפילו היה בו דברי חכמה ומדע.
One may read nothing on Shabbat or Yom Tov, beyond the books of the Prophets and their explanations. This even applies to works of wisdom and knowledge.

Lest one think these represent extreme views of pietists, the former is codified in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 307:1, the latter in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 307:17. [The latter source does add the caveat that some disagree and permit reading 'books of wisdom'.]

On one hand, I like this; I need to spend more time thinking about Gd. If Gd created me, and the purpose of my existence is to satisfy Divine expectations [in social relations as well as spiritual development, of course], shouldn't I set aside a regular time to contemplate that relationship? And might that go some way toward helping me feel Gd's presence on an on-going basis?

On the other hand: If I were to dedicate my weekly Shabbos 'time-out' for this sort of monkhood, when would I spend time on all of those other necessities – recharging, family, community?

But that other hand may not be a legitimate point. A person who doesn't have a knife can't decide that his fork is a knife – it's a fork. A person who doesn't have money can't decide to use someone else's funds as his own. And a person who hasn’t set aside time for recharging, family and community can't decide to use Gd's time for those purposes.

And it may not be the point at all; does my concern for recharging, family and community simply mask a fear that I couldn't spend an entire day contemplating my relationship with Gd?

Something to think about.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Class: Attending conferences on Shabbos

I'm working on a shiur on "Attending conferences on Shabbos" at the moment. It's primarily intended for medical professionals, but it will have applications for others.

Because I've never attended a non-rabbinic conference, I'm relying on friends for input on the challenges involved, aside from the basic challenge of whether one may spend Shabbos in a professional milieu. I'd be glad to hear from readers: What issues are involved?

Here are the issues I am currently addressing:

Overarching Issues

* Is one permitted to study professional subjects on Shabbos?
* Is one permitted to put himself in a professional milieu for Shabbos?
* Is there a maris ayin issue involved in attending such a conference, even without violating any laws?

Positive Mitzvos
* How should one handle Shabbos and Havdalah candles in a hotel?
* Missing minyan for medical knowledge, or for parnassah
* Missing Krias haTorah for medical knowledge, or for parnassah

* Attaching nametag stickers
* Wearing a nametag in walking to a convention center
* Carrying in a hallway between a hotel and a convention center
* Entering a room which is unlocked via electronic key
* Entering a session, when an attendant will check off your name
* Use of elevators
* Use of escalators
* Use of doors which open via sensors

What am I missing? (Oy - This session is supposed to be one hour...!)

Update: The shiur audio is now on-line here.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Jews and Politics

[The following is my article for this week's Toronto Torah; note the ubiquitous Canadian 'u' and the gratuitous injection of French!]

The sage Shemayah was a leading scholar of the first century BCE, and mentor of the great Hillel, but his words in Pirkei Avot have gained little traction with Jews over the centuries. Shemayah advised (Avot 1:10), "Love labour, hate positions of authority and do not make yourself known to the government." Ignoring this judicious counsel, we strive for early retirement, we clamour for authority, and we have a long, colourful history of cultivating relationships with the government du jour.

Shemayah's own flouting of his first two pearls of wisdom is fascinating; he held the sinecure of President of the Sanhedrin, so that his advice amounts to, "Do as I say, not as I do." But to focus on his third recommendation, that we not make ourselves known to government, why did so many giants of our past – Rabbi Yehudah haNasi, Mar Shemuel, Shemuel haNagid, Don Isaac Abarbanel, Sir Moses Montefiore, to name a few – cultivate relationships with the governments of their day?

On one level, our government alliances are simply a product of Pragmatism. We would like certain things from society: the right to practice our religion without being harrassed, the option of sending our children to Jewish schools, the freedom to take Shabbat and Yom Tov off of work without penalty. We would like certain ideals reflected in municipal and federal policy. A pragmatist says that if we want to achieve, we must involve ourselves, express our opinions, and contribute to the public good.

We find this point of view expressed by Rabbi Yissachar Techtel, author of the Em haBanim Smeichah, regarding Israel and the involvement of Torah-observant Jews in birthing the nascent state. Writing in 1942, Rav Techtel berated those who complained about the secular character of the Zionist leadership. He asked, “Were you involved when they started? Did you build their towns with them? Did you move to the land and help build it up?” We must be willing to be involved.

A second reason for investment is Gratitude. We receive food through society's system of highways, profit from its stable commercial environment, and live safely thanks to its police and courts. We enjoy parks in which to play, and roads on which to drive. Our taxes fund these services, but society provides the oversight, design and maintainenance of this grand system. Gratitude dictates that we pay for this service, and playing a role in government is part of that payment.

Gratitude is the model taken by Rav Moshe Feinstein, in a letter encouraging voter registration. He wrote: "A fundamental principle of Judaism is hakaras hatov – recognizing benefits afforded us and giving expression to our appreciation. Therefore, it is incumbent upon each Jewish citizen to participate in the democratic system which affords us the freedoms we enjoy. The most fundamental responsibility incumbent upon each individual is to register to vote."

Beyond pragmatism and gratitude, though, we have a tradition of flouting Shemayah's advice because we are taught to invest in Community. We are a Jewish community, but we are also part of a larger community, and we are responsible to that larger community.

As the gemara (Shabbat 33b) explains, Yaakov pioneered this community approach. When Yaakov moved his family to Shechem, he contributed to the infrastructure of the land; Rav said that Yaakov established a currency, Shemuel said that Yaakov founded a marketplace, and R’ Yochanan said that he constructed bathhouses for the population. Rashi explains that Yaakov did this when he purchased land in the area; upon becoming landed, he made an investment in the public good.

The same message may be seen in our ancestor Avraham's plea on behalf of the hypothetical righteous population of Sodom. Avraham contended, “Perhaps there are righteous people b'toch ha'ir, in the midst of the city,” emphasizing that the individuals who could forestall catastrophe would be people who functioned as part of the citizenry, not as an isolated enclave. The work Panim laTorah cites the Vilna Gaon as highlighting this language, and both Ibn Ezra and Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch did likewise in their commentaries to the Torah. The worth of the righteous stems from their involvement with the greater populace.

Given these three elements – Pragmatism, Gratitude and Community – why did Shemayah take a stand against making ourselves known to the government? Perhaps Shemayah's words were formed in response to the Sanhedrin he personally led, a group of sages who cowered before the murderous King Herod (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 14:9; see a variant edition in Sanhedrin 19a). Shemayah was justly concerned that a nation which consorted closely with corrupt kings could be intimidated or bought. Nonetheless, the weight of Jewish tradition is with the Abarbanels and Montefiores; for reasons both selfish and selfless, we seek the good of the land we inhabit – investing, building, and governing as well.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Rabbinics 101: How to teach a class

[I can sympathize with this: Too Cool for Shul at Modern Uberdox]

I don't claim to be any sort of expert on teaching, but I have 15 years of experience in adult education across a pretty broad range of subjects and audiences at this point, and I do think I've absorbed some good lessons along the way. Here are four items, about presentation rather than content; feel free to add, or challenge, in the comments:

Make sure your enthusiasm is visible I learned this one when teaching a challenging, iyun series; after one class, one of the participants commented that I had clearly enjoyed that one. I realized then that I had not been very enthusiastic in presenting previous classes; I had been too caught up in the difficulty, and in insecurity about possibly making a mistake.

כמים הפנים אל הפנים, feelings are contagious. Human beings like to interact with human beings who are having a good time; people who seem stressed, tired or anxious make us feel likewise. Make sure people can see that you are having a good time.

And if you aren't having a good time, it's time to find out why and do something about it.

Over-prepare, but don't over-invest I am a strong believer in over-preparing, coming to class ready for tangents and questions that may never materialize; it's best to know the topic well, and have much more to say than you will ever get to voice. However, this comes with a risk – that we become attached to our content, on which we have worked so hard, and so we end up trying to cram in far more than we should. Our explanations lose clarity and our ideas are not expressed in a compelling way, and the result is a negative class experience. A rabbi should not become so invested in his material that he loses sight of the basic goal: Education.

And as anyone who has ever been in a class of mine knows, I violate this rule regularly.

I don't know, I'll check Never feel forced to answer a question on site; it's okay to do research and then get back to people, whether in matters of halachah, text, history or philosophy. This is also good because it generates post-class communication, which I find enhances the entire experience and helps create lasting relationships. It also demonstrates tangibly that the class is more than an intellectual exercise or fulfillment of a job responsibility; it matters.

Interactive! The people who come to classes may be doctors or lawyers or plumbers, teachers or mechanics or psychologists or accountants or businesspeople or middle managers or taxi drivers. Whoever they are, their lives are interactive – they are used to talking and listening and analyzing and responding and questioning and advising.

People may be accustomed to sitting in a movie for two hours or in front of a television for an hour, but human beings don't listen to other human beings talk at them for 45 minutes or an hour. Interactive is the key – icebreakers, questions, invitations to analyze.

What would you add?

Monday, November 7, 2011

To Educate or to Inspire?

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here!]

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was at our shul in Toronto this Shabbos, and one of his themes was the use of music to reach our souls.

At one point, the Chief Rabbi commented that Orthodoxy had made a critical mistake for decades, trying to reach people on the cognitive level – and, as he put it, "Cognitive is the English word for dull."

I don't think it's a mistake to reach out intellectually, framing Judaism's teachings in academic terms and attempting to teach text. For that matter, I don't think the Chief Rabbi believes that, either. To inspire the soul without informing the intellect would be to forsake the substance which anchors us as Jews, to abandon the eternal message of Sinai in favor of its ephemeral firework accompaniment, and to veer dangerously into cult territory.

But I do believe that reaching someone on an emotional level generally has a greater and more desirable impact than reaching him on an intellectual level.

Teaching a text can educate, but reaching a soul can awaken.

Teaching a text can inform practice, but reaching a soul can inspire it.

Teaching a text can reduce doubts, but reaching a soul can enable a person to live beyond them.

And while text might be a means of reaching some souls, I don't believe it is the means to reach most.

So why do rabbis traditionally spend so much time teaching text, and comparatively little time singing?

One reason is that inspiration doesn't require a rabbi; it can come from a garden or a song or a meditation or a prayer. Knowledge often requires specialized instruction, but inspiration may be found everywhere.

Another reason is that - in some ways - it's easier to teach text; read a book, explain it, rinse and repeat. It doesn't involve the deep personal relationship, and the associated investment of energy and passionate caring, needed to learn a soul and speak its language and embrace it and understand what moves it. But the results of speaking honestly to a soul are so much more significant – and, personally, I find the experience much more rewarding.

No surprise conclusion here – the two approaches go hand in hand. One who would impart Judaism must succeed at both. But I am with Rabbi Sacks: Shifting some focus from cognition to inspiration would do our Jewish world good.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Class: Medical Data Entry on Shabbat

Herewith the vignettes for a class this Sunday, geared toward medical professionals (and with CME credit available) but not limited to them. How would you answer these questions?

Category 1
Jim, a medical resident, is doing rounds in a neurology unit on Shabbat morning, and he notices that a recovering stroke victim is less responsive than he had been on the previous day. How should he record this information, or arrange for its recording?


Sam, 40 year old male normally in good health, presents to the doctor's house with fever and cough, and on auscultation has a pneumonia which does not require hospitalization, but does require antibiotics. May a prescription be written, and how?

Category 2
In a hospital's stepdown ICU unit, vital signs are checked every four hours. Sarah, a nurse, is charged with doing this on her Shabbat shift and recording the results, even if the signs are unchanged from the previous recording. How should she record this information, or arrange for its recording?

Category 3
Chaim is an ER nurse working in the hospital on Shabbat. A patient's wife needs to leave for several hours, and she wants to give Chaim her phone number as an emergency contact. In what way may Chaim record the information, or arrange for its recording?

Update: The shiur is now available on-line here.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Improving our yeshiva day school system

Much has been said, and much continues to be said, and much more needs to be said, about improving the economics of our yeshiva day schools. But what about improving the education, particularly in limudei kodesh [Judaic studies] - what would you do?

Of course, I always have ideas - Sunday School in limudei kodesh for girls, Judaic enrichment programs - but this is going to be an open thread: What would you suggest for our schools?

In order to provide something related to the conversation, though, here's a piece of an article slated to appear in this week's Toronto Torah, a translation of a segment of Rav Yair Bachrach's Chavos Yair Responsum 124. Rabbi Bachrach pessimistically answers a man who wants to know how to guide the education of his 13 year old son [translaton by Rabbi Ezra Goldschmiedt, one of our avreichim]:

Since you've made known to me that [your son] spoke beautifully at his Bar Mitzvah, I assume he's already learned matters of aggada such as Midrash Rabbah and Ein Yaakov that, in truth, are good for young men, like appetizers before the main course. They will also be glorious and beautiful in the ears of those who hear [from him] a particular peshat or derash, or when he hears a talk from a great [scholar] he will loudly interject and make known his knowledge and grasp [of the subject], by which he [himself] will become known as a distinguished scholar. After all that, perhaps he will find a wife and find goodness, wealth and riches.

However, this would be neither the proper path nor the proper city, nor is it the definition of a true scholar who has acquired wisdom, and grown to the point that we would hope he would be able to render good and just rulings in Israel, who is filled with the meat and wine of the [more] substantial matters of Torah.

Concerning the [management of the] stages [of your son's learning], this is a difficult matter for an individual – even one who is wealthy and distinguished – to manage for his son. [And this would be the case as well] even if one were to find a distinguished scholar who would teach for the sake of heaven, without deception and for whom personal gain and reward is not all they have in mind. This already is uncommon, and it may not even exist, but even if you were to look and find [such a person, you would have another difficulty].

All who have children who go to school adopt a manner of learning that is not proper – so what could one local [teacher] do, to go against his colleagues and change [this system] and adopt a proper approach against his peers? And even if one's father would hire a teacher for him [alone], is not the greatest need in study the bond with friends, as it is written (Taanit 7a) “[I have learned] more from my friends than my teachers”? There is no solution for this, unless one were to gather together five or six heads of household and hire a teacher for their sons, on condition that none could be added. They would provide [for the teacher] as befits him, as though he had double the students. Then, Divine counsel will be effective through this system of learning.