Tuesday, October 30, 2012

For Rabbis: How to avoid being intimidating

I spent a lot of time this past weekend at my friend and Rabbi's shul installation. One point noted by many speakers is that this Rabbi is beloved for his approachability.

This is not a small thing; how can you offer counsel and support when people are afraid to talk to you? And it's not necessarily easy to achieve, given the title and its baggage, as well as the popular rabbinic costume of dark suit, beard and hat. [I have my own problem of PermascowlTM, thanks largely to bone structure. It was useful on the New York subway of my youth, but it's just annoying now.]

Several years ago, in a different venue, I asked what Rabbis could do in order to avoid being intimidating. Here are some of the responses I received:

* Open your divrei torah with a joke [I don't like this approach, where it is intentional; I know the gemara about it, but it feels like pandering. "Please, please! Like me! Look, I'll do a trick for you!" I'll tell a joke when I feel like it.]

* Play racquetball

* Have a pet python [I had a boa constrictor as a kid, does that count?]

* Always have a joke on hand

* Walk around with a yo-yo

* Keep a kazoo, maracas or set of castanets with you

* Be seen socially with your wife, outside of a shul setting

* Practice smiling

* Dye your beard purple

* Wear a blue shirt (the beard is more likely; I don't know how to match a tie with a coloured shirt)

What would you add?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Men, Women and the Synagogue

The problem of equal participation in the synagogue has come up a lot recently, in part stemming from the annual Simchas Torah question of whether to hold women's hakafos, and Torah-readings or simulated Torah-readings by and for women.

I am troubled by my own conservative stance on this issue. I believe it's the right stance for the synagogue as it was meant to be, but not for the synagogue as most people perceive it today.

As I understand it, the synagogue, in its origins, was a space for the Jew to express his/her full relationship with Gd. The synagogue was meant to be the site of particular rituals, a mini-Beit haMikdash as it was classically called. Nothing more.

To me, the Jew's relationship with Gd was meant to be expressed and developed in personal life, in private existence, in a grateful modeh ani upon rising and a pensive hamapil upon retiring to bed, in a berachah before eating and a dvar torah at the meal and birkat hamazon at the close, in giving tzedakah and speaking positively of others and giving terumah to the kohanim and maaser to the leviyyim, in planting trees and harvesting crops, in remembering yetziat mitzrayim and developing the land of Israel.

The synagogue was not meant to define my religious experience; it was a place for me to go for krias hatorah, for a minyan to do what a minyan does. And yes, it was male-dominated.

But this viewpoint is hard to swallow today, in a world which generally supports an ahistorical understanding of the synagogue: a community center (beit haknesset) and focal point for all manner of social organization.

Today, the synagogue has become the sum of so much of our Jewish life, and so it makes perfect sense that everyone would see it as part of their religious bailiwick. Of course everyone wants an equal role in synagogue ritual; I believe that many if not most are sincerely seeking inspiration and connection and a substantive role in building a strong religious community.

For the synagogue as people view it today, our current system is an offense to serious women, and the initiatives which my part of the Orthodox community offers to level the playing field only highlight the inequality and deepen the offense. Even the most "avant garde" - taking the Torah through the women's section, having women deliver divrei torah and so on - only underscore the fact that men are the ones to lein, receive aliyos and lead davening.

But to return to my view, the true synagogue is to Judaism what the showroom floor is to automobile manufacturing - an important element, but not where the car is made. It's a shiny space very much on display, but the production, the sale, the driving and the servicing take place elsewhere. And the result of the modern, altered perception of the synagogue is a disaster far beyond the issue of male/female; the result is a Jewish world which often leaves its religion at the door of the synagogue.

Or to use Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch's words, from Dayyan Grunfeld's introduction to Horeb (full credit to Rabbi Ezra Goldschmiedt for reminding me of this passage):

If I had the power I would provisionally close all synagogues for a hundred years. Do not tremble at the thought of it, Jewish heart. What would happen? Jews and Jewesses without synagogues, desiring to remain such, would be forced to concentrate on a Jewish life and a Jewish home. The Jewish officials connected with the synagogue would have to look to the only opportunity now open to them - to teach young and old how to live a Jewish life and how to build a Jewish home. All synagogues closed by Jewish hands would constitute the strongest protest against the abandonment of the Torah in home and life.

Imagine if we would do that... but I think it's really too late. Genies don't like to return to their bottles, and synagogues are not apt to lose their centrality. Further, such a move would likely have devastating results, certainly in North America; quite a few 20th century North American communities tried to create "Jewish Community Center"s which did not host religious ritual, and in many of those communities the experiment failed. Further, in my pulpit days I would not have wanted our synagogue to have lost its centrality; we accomplished a great deal of good for a great many people. Should I ever return to the pulpit, it would be to a community synagogue, not a dedicated prayer space.

So we have a synagogue that tries to be old-school mini-Temple as well as community center in a modern world, and it can't really do both without alienating people.

So I don't know what happens now.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Useless Theological Questions

In a recent post, I commented, "These days I find myself much less interested in the question of why Gd created this world, and much more interested in the question of what we can do with it."

I want to explain this a bit, because it could be read as glib, and even patronizing to those who do wonder about these matters. That's not at all where I was going with it. [I was also not claiming to channel Rav Soloveitchik's distinction between those two questions; that's a discussion for another time.]

I am not suggesting that one question is more worthwhile than the other, or that I have progressed to some point which others have not yet achieved. Just the opposite; I'm not sure that I'm okay with this change in myself. I might prefer to be otherwise.

But to the person I am today, the questions of "Why did Gd do X" and "Would Gd do X" have no practical meaning. I might as well ask whether Gd can make a rock He can't lift – the answers are irrelevant in the real world.

Let's pretend that I asked, "Would Gd, as understood traditionally in Judaism, create someone with a deeply homosexual nature and prohibit him from fulfilling them?" and the answer was "No." What would I do then?

Would I stop believing in the traditional Jewish version of Gd, since there are people who claim to have been created with a deeply homosexual nature? Would I abandon Torah? Of course not.

Would I respond differently to people who say they have been created with a deeply homosexual nature? Very unlikely.

It's like asking, "Why does Gd allow good people to suffer?" There are numerous answers, of course, and they offer varying degrees of satisfaction. But none of them affect what I do, in practice.

If I'm not willing to change my ways due to the answer, the question doesn't matter much to me.

On one level I wonder if this is part of the narrowing that comes to many people with age. Pathways of thought can become more rigid with time, certainly. But I don't think that's what it is; I think it's a function of my shift from rabbinate to rosh kollelate.

Since leaving the pulpit, I have narrowed in certain predictable, often very regrettable ways. One way is that my sphere of interactions is reduced; I don't have many opportunities for deep philosophical discussions, between shiurim and chavrusos and shiur preparation. There is little time, if any, for random conversations. As a result, I don’t spend much time thinking about the Why of suffering, and my interest in them has waned in comparison with my interest in questions about the What Now of suffering.

It's not better or worse, regress or progress. It just is.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Women in the Military

I'm presenting a session on "Women in the Military" on Wednesday night, Gd-willing. I want to look at the issue on a philosophical level, in terms of how modern feminism will address the issues that come up, and particularly the key problem of trying to change social constructs when you recognize their underlying validity. Here are the sources I plan to use:

Two kinds of war
1.         Rambam, Sefer haMitzvot, Commandments 190-191
והמצוה הק"צ היא המשפט שנתן לנו במלחמת שאר האומות והיא הנקראת (מתני' סוטה ספ"ח סנה' ב א, כ ב) מלחמת הרשות...
והמצוה הקצ"א היא שצונו שנמנה כהן שיוכיח לעם תוכחת המלחמה...
The 190th commandment is the law given to us regarding wars with other nations; this is called "optional war"… The 191st commandment is that He instructed us to appoint a kohen to rebuke the nation regarding the war …

May women engage in"optional war"? Why / Why not?
2.         Rambam, Introduction to his count of the mitzvot
וידוע שאין הנשים דנות... ולא נלחמות במלחמת רשות
It is known that women do not judge… and do not fight in optional wars.

3.         Talmud, Nazir 59a
רבי אליעזר בן יעקב אומר מנין שלא תצא אשה בכלי זיין למלחמה ת"ל לא יהיה כלי גבר על אשה ולא ילבש גבר שמלת אשה
R’ Eliezer ben Yaakov said: How do we know that a woman may not go out to war with weapons? It is written, ‘The implements of a man shall not be upon a woman.’

4.         Payam Akhavan, Beyond Impunity: Can International Criminal Justice Prevent Future Atrocities?, The American Journal of International Law 95:7
Through systematic indoctrination and misinformation, political leaders created an aberrant context of inverted morality in which dehumanization and violence against members of the "enemy" group were legitimized as purported acts of self-defence.

5.         H. Patricia Hynes, Military Sexual Abuse: A Greater Menace Than Combat, Truthout
Women in the military are raped and sexually assaulted at significantly higher rates than in civilian society. A 2003 study of women seeking health care through the VA from the period of the Vietnam war through the first Gulf War found that nearly 1 in 3 women was raped while serving - almost twice the rate of rape in US society - and that 8 in 10 women had been sexually harassed during their military service. Rates were consistent through all periods and wars studied. Of those who reported having been raped, 37 percent were raped at least twice and 14 percent were gang-raped. 
What's often overlooked in these statistics is that the reported prevalence of rape in the military is based on a period of 2-6 years in military service, whereas the sexual assault of women in civilian society (nearly 1 in 5) is based on lifetime prevalence - signifying an even more concentrated culture of sexual assault and a higher threat for active-duty military women from fellow soldiers. A distinct pattern has emerged from VA studies which reveals older and sometimes senior men rape younger and more junior women, exposing the dominance motive in rape.
In the spring of 2011, the Air Force released results from a survey of sexual assault conducted by Gallup of nearly 20,000 male and female "airmen" (sic). Nearly 1 in 5 women reported being sexually assaulted while in the service, with most of the perpetrators being men in the Air Force.

6.         Proclamation of 1953  http://chareidi.shemayisrael.com/archives5765/mishpotim/MSH65features.htm
"Since we have already stated our position, daas Torah, regarding the draft of girls, which is an accessory (avrizraihu) to one of the three cardinal sins, the ruling of which is known that one must submit oneself to death rather than transgress it, and since the government stands to institute a law obligating Jewish daughters by force to present themselves for the draft of civil national service outside the framework of the military, we therefore publicly state our position and halachic ruling that this prohibition against the mobilization of women refers also to Sherut Leumi in its full severity.
"We appeal to all Jewish daughters and we obligate you by power of the Torah to gather and stand up for your lives, to be an example for all of Jewry like Chanah and her seven sons, and like the four hundred boys and girls who were taken into captivity for shameful purposes and who cast themselves into the sea, to oppose with all your might the kidnappers who have risen against you. You are commanded hereby to choose to be imprisoned in jail and accept upon yourselves to suffer poverty and suffering and thereby to sanctify the name of Heaven, as it is written, `For Your sake have we been killed every day' (Gittin 57)."

7.         Talmud, Yevamot 65b
'ומלאו את הארץ וכבשוה' - איש דרכו לכבש ואין אשה דרכה לכבש
'And fill the land and conquer it' – A man's way is to conquer; it is not a woman's way to conquer.

8.         Talmud, Kiddushin 2b
דרכו של איש לעשות מלחמה ואין דרכה של אשה לעשות מלחמה
It is the manner of a man to wage war; it is not the manner of a woman to wage war.

9.         R' Tzvi Yehudah Kook on Yevamot 65b (printed in footnote 124 to שיחות הרב צבי יהודה, פר' כי תצא)
שאין דרך רגילותה ומנהגה כך, ולא שהיא אסורה בזה בבחינת חק של תורה ומצוה, אלא מצד טבעה והרגלה
This is not her normal conduct and custom. It is not that she is prohibited by statute of Torah and commandment, but by her nature and normal conduct.

10.      Talmud, Yevamot 76b
'על אשר לא קדמו אתכם בלחם ובמים' - דרכו של איש לקדם ולא דרכה של אשה לקדם
'Because they did not greet you with bread and water' – It is the manner of a man to greet [strangers], it is not the manner of a woman to greet.

11.      Mishnah Shabbat 6:4
לא יצא האיש לא בסייף ולא בקשת ולא בתריס ולא באלה ולא ברומח ואם יצא חייב חטאת רבי אליעזר אומר תכשיטין הן לו וחכמים אומרים אינן אלא לגנאי שנאמר 'וכתתו חרבותם לאתים וחניתותיהם למזמרות לא ישא גוי אל גוי חרב ולא ילמדו עוד מלחמה'
A man should not travel [on Shabbat, in a public area] with a sword or bow or shield or lance or spear; should he do so, he would be liable for a sin offering. R' Eliezer said: These are ornaments for him! The Sages said: These are only disgraceful, as it is written, 'And they will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks…'

The problem of "mitzvah wars" and other precedents
12.      Mishnah Sotah 8:7
במלחמת מצוה הכל יוצאין אפילו (יואל ב') חתן מחדרו וכלה מחופתה
In mitzvah wars everyone goes, even the groom from his room and the bride from her chuppah.

13.      R' David ibn Abi Zimra to Mishneh Torah, Hilchot, Melachim 7:4
וי"ל דה"ק כיון דחתן יוצא מחדרו כלה יוצאה מחופתה שאינה נוהגת ימי חופה ואפשר דבמלחמת מצוה הנשים היו מספקות מים ומזון לבעליהן וכן המנהג היום בערביות
One could suggest that he was saying that a groom leaves his chamber and a bride leaves her chuppah, since they won't observe the days of the chuppah. Or, perhaps, in a mitzvah war the women provide water and food for their husbands, as is the custom today in Arab lands.

14.      R' Tzvi Yehudah Kook, Letter from 1977 (printed in footnote 128 to שיחות הרב צבי יהודה, פר' כי תצא)
מפורש במשנה במסכת סוטה בפרק האחרון כי למלחמת מצוה הכל יוצאים, אפילו חתן מחדרו וכלה מחופתה. וכן בהלכות מלכים ברמב"ם. אמנם הלכה כבתראי כרדב"ז.
It is explained in a mishnah in the last chapter of Sotah that all go to a mitzvah war, even a groom from his chamber and a bride from her chuppah. And so it is in the Rambam's Laws of Kings. However, the law follows the latest authority, Radbaz.

15.      Shoftim 4:8-10 (modified JPS translation)
וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלֶיהָ בָּרָק אִם תֵּלְכִי עִמִּי וְהָלָכְתִּי וְאִם לֹא תֵלְכִי עִמִּי לֹא אֵלֵךְ: וַתֹּאמֶר הָלֹךְ אֵלֵךְ עִמָּךְ אֶפֶס כִּי לֹא תִהְיֶה תִּפְאַרְתְּךָ עַל הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה הוֹלֵךְ כִּי בְיַד אִשָּׁה יִמְכֹּר ד' אֶת סִיסְרָא וַתָּקָם דְּבוֹרָה וַתֵּלֶךְ עִם בָּרָק קֶדְשָׁה: וַיַּזְעֵק בָּרָק אֶת זְבוּלֻן וְאֶת נַפְתָּלִי קֶדְשָׁה וַיַּעַל בְּרַגְלָיו עֲשֶׂרֶת אַלְפֵי אִישׁ וַתַּעַל עִמּוֹ דְּבוֹרָה:
And Barak said to her: If you will go with me then I will go; if you will not go with me, I will not go.
And she said: I will surely go with you, but your glory will not come from the path you travel. Gd will sell Sisera into the hands of a woman.
And Devorah arose and went with Barak, to Kadesh. And Barak alerted Zevulun and Naftali to Kadesh, and ten thousand men ascended with him, and Devorah ascended with him.

16.      Rashi to Nazir 59a
וזה שמצינו ביעל אשת חבר הקיני שלא הרגתו לסיסרא בכלי זיין אלא כמו שנאמר ידה ליתד תשלחנה
As far as Yael, wife of Chever the Kenite, she did not kill Sisera with a weapon; rather, as it is said, "She sent her hand to the peg."

Is this a struggle for the sake of society, against society?
17.      Eetta Prince-Gibson, Religious Leaders Attack IDF on the Gender Battlefield, Jerusalem Post Service, http://www.jweekly.com/article/full/15267/religious-leaders-attack-idf-on-the-gender-battlefield/
Moreover, said Rabbi Eliezer Sadan, head of the pre-military yeshiva in Eli, placing women in combat units violates their nature. "Women have wonderful qualities. It is their nature to nurture and to produce life. The army is ugly and powerful, and war is painful. We must protect women from the army. "In the War of Independence, we had no choice and women had to serve. Today, thank Gd, we have a choice, so we must not teach women to kill. It will damage their souls."
Chazan, a Meretz member, responded angrily: "Who are you to decide that? Let every woman decide what her nature is!"

18.      Erin Solaro, An Unabashed Feminist Writes About Women in the Military, http://www.pbs.org/pov/regardingwar/conversations/women-and-war/introductions-an-unabashed-feminist-writes-about-women-in-the-military.php
I am an overt and unabashed feminist: I believe women have the same civic and human worth men do. Part of that worth is the right — and the responsibility — to bear arms in the common defense (of which military service is only one part). We — women — live here too, and we are equal in all things, not just the good things of civilization. The military is also an important part of society: at its best, it is the honorable profession of arms. It is utterly imperative that women be part of it. It is our military, our society, our world, and the outcome of this odd, utterly real, botched-beyond-belief war we are fighting with radical fundamentalist Islam is important to us… Then there is the simple fact that if women are marginalized in the military and defense and foreign policy, so are our needs, our experiences and perspectives. That women, like men, are individuals neither changes the fact that there are specifically female needs, experiences, and perspectives nor the reality that when half the population is systematically excluded from and marginalized in an institution — any institution — that institution is necessarily warped. And that is a bad thing: for society, the institution and for women in general.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Six years ago, and now

In my previous post, I re-posted a letter sent by an anonymous man to The Jewish Press six years ago, on his homosexuality and the responses of the Orthodox community to homosexuality.

In my brief comment, I noted that I responded to this letter on a website six years ago, and that my own response might have changed over the past six years.

My response from six years ago included the following:
A few thoughts on the question of how Gd could test a person with this kind of practically impossible challenge:

1. The letter is remarkable and articulate, and I admire the writer. That said, and in no way to take anything away from him, one should not make the mistake of thinking its writer is unique. There are many in this situation who, like the writer, have not abandoned faith and who are working hour by hour, day by day, to manage a most difficult situation.

2. The writer says it is cruel to claim that change might one day be possible. I am not a JONAH fan, but I am in the camp that believes that homosexuality is a spectrum; even if change is not possible for that writer, this doesn't mean that change is impossible for all people with homosexual impulses.

3. The word "fair" is not relevant when describing a world which is designed to test us. Bereishis teaches us at the outset that life is meant to be filled with hard-to-impossible challenges; why else does G-d put the tree smack in the middle of the garden, point to it and say, 'Don't eat from this?' If you don't want them to eat then don't make the tree, or don't put it in the garden, or don't put it in the middle, or don't make it attractive, or don't allow the serpent to cold-call Chavah... Clearly, we are being taught a lesson: This world is filled with tests, and they aren't going to be balanced or straightforward.

4. Some things that happen to us are reward. Some things that happen to us are punishment. And some things that happen to us are neither; they are circumstances G-d has created for one reason or another... This is why it is rank foolishness to try to read events as reward or punishment; quite often, it's simply neither...

5. Rav Tzaddok haKohen of Lublin commented in Tzidkas haTzaddik that one may indeed be faced with a test one cannot pass - but that since we don't know whether that's true of any specific test, we have to view all of our challenges as surmountable.

Six years later, I believe the same theology, but I don't find the theological question as interesting anymore. Had the letter appeared today, I would have felt less compelled to respond to the question of people's suffering and Divine tests.

Maybe that's because I'm older. Maybe it's because I'm not in the pulpit anymore. I don't know - but these days I find myself much less interested in the question of why Gd created this world, and much more interested in the question of what we can do with it.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

A letter to the Jewish Press, six years later

In December 2006, I saw a letter posted on the Jewish Press website, in a column, "Chronicles of Crises in our Community".

The letter has come back to my mind lately; I blogged about it at the time [on a site that no longer exists], but I wonder whether I would respond the same way six years later. I also wonder where the letter-writer is now.

For those who did not see the letter in 2006, or who also might benefit from re-reading it, here it is:

Dear Rachel,

As a man who has struggled with homosexuality and frumkeit for many years, I take exception to your consistent championing of change being possible and of asserting that there is no such thing as gay. I’d like to offer another perspective.

Let me start by saying that I believe fully in Torah M’Sinai and consider myself to be a fully committed Orthodox Jew whose tafkid in life is to do my best to keep ALL of the Taryag Mitzvot. I am fully versed in both Halachah and Hashkafah and have no issues whatsoever with the philosophical underpinnings of our belief system. I truly believe that every word of the Chamisha Chumshai Torah was given directly from Hashem to Moshe, and that along with those words, Moshe received Torah SheBa’aL Peh.

The prohibition of Mishkav Zachar comes from the same Hashem that told me to keep Shabbos, to keep Kosher and to fast on Yom Kippur, and I will do my best to keep this mitzvah as I try to do the others.

What I do not fathom is how the prohibition of a very specific behavior translates into Hashem not making people whose sexual orientation is homosexual.

From a hashkafik perspective: The mitzvot revolving around Arayot in the Torah address one thing and one thing only − behavior. There is no discussion of desire, of motivation, of what’s normal desire and deviant desire. Even if one translates ‘To’avah’ in the pasuk of Mishkav Zachar as ‘abomination’ – which is by no means a definitive definition based on Chazal − it still refers to the action, not the desire.

Your writers say that Hashem wouldn’t or couldn’t give an orientation to a person and then prohibit him from acting on it. They say that a person’s desire must be able to change if the Torah prohibits an action. In my opinion, this is putting a very Pollyannaish spin on the very nature of nisayon in Olam Ha’Zeh. The fact is that many times Hashem puts people in adverse circumstances that will not change.

I would argue that in those circumstances the definition of success with the nisayon is first accepting the circumstances and then living as rich a life as possible within those circumstances. Would you, for example, tell a person with medically incurable deafness not to accept that diagnosis? That Hashem would not do that to him because there are so many mitzvot, such as shofar, that involve hearing? That his focus in life should center on searching for a cure? Could you imagine a crueler and less productive way to deal with this most challenging nisayon?

My own struggle with homosexuality has come at enormous cost for me. I ruined a marriage and a successful career. Though I’ve been to the best “SSA therapists” (and thereby gained many positive things), one thing that did not change is my basic desire.

Some may say I didn’t try hard enough. Firstly, ‘Don’t Judge Your Friend Until You Stand In His Place.’ Furthermore, which believer in Torah M’Sinai would not want to ‘change’? Certainly one who lost as much as I did would have more than enough motivation.

But all the motivation in the world has not changed reality for me. When I think of the enormous pain men like me go through, I wish that the hope of change could be there. But I also know that at this point I’d rather face reality than embrace false hope.

And I think of the enormous pain of the women who marry these men. Even in cases where the men are up front with their wives – as I wasn’t, and where they control their behavior – as I didn’t, there is an inherent cruelty in a marriage that lacks the central glue of desire, as I learned first hand. A cruelty that NO woman should be exposed to, and a cruelty that no young woman – particularly a sheltered Bais Yaakov girl – can possibly understand until it is too late. There is no way before marriage that a frum woman can truly fathom what her husband’s lack of desire for her will be like. It is the inherent desire of EVERY woman to be desired by her husband, and I don’t think any Bas Yisrael should be exposed to the risk of encountering rejection.

Believe me I understand fully how much any frum man with homosexual desires wants the hope of a “normal frum life” with a wife and children. And I understand first hand the enormous pain of having to accept that sometimes Hashem says no. But I would rather live my life honest with myself and the situation Hashem placed me in than risk building another world of lies – and devastating another woman.

I don’t know if you will publish this – especially because I’ve essentially advocated a life of loneliness and celibacy for men with homosexual tendencies. At the same time I want to make it clear that I am not advocating an acceptance of a gay lifestyle on any level by the frum community, nor suggesting any “wiggle room” when it comes to a lav in the Torah.

I did not choose to be what I am

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Koheles for Kids?

I received an interesting question the other day: If you were running a minyan for young teens (12-15), how would you handle the reading of Koheles? Would you force them to deal with the 30-minute interlude, holding their Stone chumashim and likely staring off into space for long stretches, or would you find some creative way to handle this, perhaps abbreviating the reading?

[The following paragraph was accidentally omitted from the original post, and added several hours later:] Our Sages registered the same concern regarding the Book of Esther and the Haggadah, despite their gripping stories, and solved the problem by adding read-alongs to Esther (Mishneh Berurah 689:16) and distribution of toys prior to the Haggadah. (Pesachim 108b)

In general, I believe in the idea of abbreviating in certain parts of davening on a temporary basis, for the sake of building kavvanah. However, I have a hard time with the idea of abbreviating Koheles; it's only read once each year, and so the kids won't end up hearing the whole thing. Also, they are a tzibbur, and a tzibbur should read Koheles; this is not the same as having individuals skip certain paragraphs of Tehillim in pesukei d'zimra.

Another option might be to interrupt the reading with questions about the text, but I'm not clear on how that would work here. Even if the kids could be drawn into real discussion, the trade-off would be elongating an already-too-long reading.

Another option: I've been told that there was a minhag in certain communities, going back centuries, to split up Koheles between the opening and closing days of Yom Tov. This might be worthwhile.

For the most fun, perhaps there could be a "drinking game" variation for Koheles. Postpone the reading until after musaf, make kiddush, and then distribute bows of corn chips, pretzels, etc. Every time you hear "hevel", pop a pretzel. Every time you hear "ra", have a corn chip. Etc. The kids would read it, and the dentists would love you...

What would you do?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

My grandmother

Thank you for your condolence emails; I appreciate it. If you are able to learn mishnah in memory of my grandmother, please sign up here.

I've been debating whether to post the eulogy I gave at my grandmother's funeral. I've felt reticent, but many people have asked about my grandmother and I do want them to know something about her, and I have found it difficult to discuss my feelings in conversation, so I have decided to publish it here. [You might also go back to this post related to my grandmother, and to this older post about her.]

We generally avoid full-blown eulogies and crying on the day after Yom Tov, so I will try to structure my thoughts more as a dvar torah.

A Jewish woman of more than 3000 years ago, Chanah, wanted nothing more than to birth a child. Living in a society that prized children and viewed procreation as the first Divine directive, surrounded in her house by the children of her rival, she knew daily misery. She trekked to the Temple every year and prayed for a child, while enduring mockery from those around her. Finally, finally, she birthed a son, Shemuel, and she sang a song to Gd; the song is recorded in the book of Shemuel.

Chanah's song is strange, though; a poem of ten sentences, it never mentions her son. Only the opening line even mentions that Gd has done anything for her, at all; she says עלץ לבי בד', "I rejoice in Your salvation." But the rest of the poem, instead of focussing on Chanah's experience, declares that Gd raises the fallen and lowers the mighty, enriches the indigent and reduces the grand to poverty, causes death and brings life. Is this really a song about the birth of her son?

Many have been puzzled by this poem; some have labelled it not a song of thanks, but a prophetic message. Others have taken it as a lesson in Jewish philosophy. Still others see her praise of Divine might as mere prologue to a request that Gd protect her son, Shemuel.

But אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו, the text must also be understood in its most literal form. On some level, Chanah was absolutely singing a song of thanks. It was not a parochial, "Thank You for Your hand in helping me." Rather, it was a broad declaration, "I recognize Your hand in everything."

It would have been normal, natural, for Chanah to have seen Shemuel's birth as a product of her own efforts; after all, she prayed and lived righteously for years without a Divine response. She was the one who carried the baby to term, then birthed, nursed and mothered him. But she saw a Divine hand in it; she credited this to Gd, she credited everything to Gd. This was her song: "Gd, I see You everywhere."

"Gd, I see You everywhere" was Grandma's song, too, whenever she spoke to me. Maybe she said it more to me, because I was a Rabbi, but it seems to me that in my adult life, almost every conversation with Grandma included a mention of how grateful she was to Gd for giving her her three daughters, her grandchildren, and then her great-grandchildren. "G-d has given me so much," she would say to me, even in these last several months, when so much that enjoyed became difficult and was taken from her.

Her faith was not unchallenged or naive; Grandma knew misfortune, and she didn't play it down. What Grandma lost in Europe was never far from her mind; she told us about Joncha, and about Uncle Leo, about her life before the war and about those who had died. And Grandma talked about Grandpa, who passed away almost forty years ago. But with all that she had suffered and lost, Grandma still credited her gifts to Gd, and with powerful emunah saw Gd's hand all around her. And וצדיק באמונתו יחיה, in that faith she lived.

Maybe seeing Gd's hand in the world was what enabled Grandma to choose life, building a new world here in America, becoming active at OZ as well as various tzedakah organizations, reading for the blind, volunteering for Family Court, and making friends wherever she went. When we were in Israel studying after high school, and Grandma came to Israel for Succos, she would invite us to the King David for their Shabbos lunch buffet, and she would tell us to bring friends – who quickly became Grandma fans for life.

Maybe seeing Gd's hand in the world was what enabled Grandma to build new, loving relationships, falling in love with her grandchildren, their spouses, and eventually her great-grandchildren. All of us remember Grandma cheering for our New York sports teams, teaching us to play her card games, leaving us long messages on our answering machines, participating in our triumphs and talking with us about our woes. And Grandma never missed an opportunity to tell us how proud she was of all of us.

Maybe seeing Gd's hand in the world was what enabled Grandma to enjoy life – eating chocolate, listening to music, playing cards. I still remember the violin concert Grandma took me to, although it must be over 25 years since that night.

To me, this was Grandma's song- עלץ לבי בד', I exult in Gd. Gd, I see You everywhere.

Yesterday, in shul, we read about the death of Moshe, the great leader who fled his birthplace and made a new life elsewhere, who formed a great nation but was stopped just short of realizing his dream of entering Israel.

Grandma, you have two up on Moshe. First, you made it into your beloved Israel, many times. And second, you made it to your own Promised Land. After so much destruction, you lived to see three wonderful daughters, who took care of you in truly rare fashion, right up until you entered the עולם האמת. You saw ten grandchildren succeed in the fields of education, medicine, law, and the arts. And you played with so many great-grandchildren, the seeds of an ever-brighter future. All of it, out of the עלץ לבי בד' faith which saw Gd's Hand everywhere.

As I was sitting in the succah two days ago, wondering what was happening with you, I noticed a part of the succah where we had employed the principle of lavud. Without going into great detail, lavud means that we view two bodies which are almost in contact, as though they were in actual contact.

Grandma, you aren't in contact anymore. You have gone to another world, and I can't hear you or see you. But you are close, and you will always be close, and lavud will have to fill the gap the rest of the way.

We love you, and owe you so much. May we live up to your legacy.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Baruch Dayyan ha'Emes

With pain and sorrow, I regret to announce the passing of my grandmother, Gisele Hausman, on Shmini Atzeres.

Grandma is the only grandparent I have really known; my other grandparents passed away before I turned 6.

In the course of my rabbinate I officiated or participated in funerals for hundreds of people. I feel cliche in invoking words I have heard out of so many other mouths - but it's all true.

Grandma is loving, courageous, and funny.

Grandma is committed to her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Grandma embraces Torah and encourages her descendants to do the same. She thanks Gd constantly for her good fortune.

Grandma remembers the pain of fleeing Europe in her youth and the death of so much of her family, and yet can revel in playing with children born in the 21st century. She can tell stories about pre-war Belgium, and ask how the Mets are doing in the next breath.

In forty years, I never heard a cross word from my grandmother. Frustration, yes. Concern, yes. Soft rebuke, even. But never anger.

Grandma is the greatest, and she leaves behind the greatest hole.

I hope to put up something more coherent in the next few days; right now, this is all I can say.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Cesar Kuriyama, Rabbeinu Yonah and self-improvement

CNN.com has a feature here on a TED talk by artist Cesar Kuriyama on his project, "1 Second Everyday". It's the sort of thing that my friend Neil Harris at Modern Uberdox would love.

As Kuriyama explains it:
The one-second everyday project [in which he recorded 1 second of video of his life every day, for a year, and concatenated the videos] was something that originally started out as a way for me to chronicle my year off from work but really quickly after I started I realized that it was helping me in many more ways. It was allowing me to realize that I could remember everyday that I've lived; it was allowing me to quickly reflect back on the things that I had to done, to be able to zoom out from the past month and realize, "Oh wow, I sat around a lot this month." I instantly decided to do it for the rest of my life and realized the benefits were far greater than the amount of work I needed to put into it, which was just a quick second to remind me of that day.

 I contrast this with the approach of Rabbeinu Yonah, in Yesod haTeshuvah:
This is the path he shall walk and the deed he shall perform to habituate himself to guard himself from sin. Each morning, when he rises from his sleep, he should set his mind to repent and he should examine his deeds... At the time for eating, before he eats, he should admit all of his sins, and if he corrupted anything then he should admit what he corrupted, and this very admission will distance him from all iniquity and sin...and so he should eat his morning meal, and then before eating in the evening he should admit all, as we have said, and then from the time of eating in the evening he should do the same until he lies down.

I see here two different approaches to the concept of cheshbon hanefesh, "personal accounting":

Kuriyama keeps a record, which he can turn back to over time to review where he has been. [Of course, Kuriyama isn't necessarily using this for self-examination leading to self-improvement, but I see this is a natural byproduct.]

Rabbeinu Yonah looks back at each one-second clip immediately afterward, in small increments, to catch problems immediately and steel himself against repeating them.

I do both; I keep a daily log of my activities, to which I can refer at year's end, and I also try to check in with myself pretty regularly.

which do you think works better?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Don't look down, Rabbi

It's a standard human defense mechanism: If someone gives me a hard time, I am apt to find fault in my critic, in return. Thus, per a talmudic observation which is echoed in general society, we have a hard time accepting rebuke; our own critics' flaws are so large and glaring that any rebuke is easily dismissed as coming from an unworthy source.

As a result, it is understandable that a Rabbi might respond to criticism by looking down on his critics. Indeed, one relative of a synagogue rabbi once warned me [before I entered the rabbinate anyway] that many synagogue board members were frustrated at their own lack of authority in their careers and at home, so that they joined the board to find someone to boss around, and upon whom to take out their frustrations.

This was a rational, if unproductive, response to criticism.

The reaction is not limited to Rabbis, of course; I've heard the same sentiment from community workers in other Jewish institutions, as well as in non-Jewish institutions. All of us receive criticism, but those who invest their greatest efforts in working for the community tend to receive it more than others, and may well grow frustrated and lash out in response.

Four observations, though:

1. In my experience, the idea that people join synagogue boards in order to lord over others is rarely true. Everyone has their faults, and some people use authority to validate themselves, but that's about where it ends.

2. This kind of perspective is damaging to the Rabbi. Putting down your persecutor doesn’t make you any better at your job, and is likely to make you worse at it.

3. A gemara in Nedarim (81a) asks why the children of Torah scholars do not become Torah scholars. One answer offered is that Torah scholars are guilty of calling regular people "donkeys"; apparently, this sort of disdain is a turn-off to their children, let alone others. [See Chatam Sofer there, who cites a related passage from a gemara in Shabbos which I cannot locate in our editions.]

4. Finally: Even in the case of a critic who is acting out due to personal weakness, the Rabbi might ask himself whether he has an opportunity, and even an obligation, to help this critic grow. As I've cited here before, Rav Chaim of Volozhin insisted that the sole purpose of our existence on Earth is to help others; if so, this critic may need help in realizing his Divine mission. If the Rabbi can get past the pain of his experience and find a way to help the critic become more positive and productive, he will have accomplished a great thing.