Tuesday, February 26, 2013

On Marriage and Divorce

A few weeks ago, I was asked (via email) why the Torah empowers men to initiate divorce, and does not assign the same power to women.

I replied, in part:

As framed by the Torah, marriage is fundamentally a financial transaction, in which a man accepts responsibility to feed, clothe, shelter and look after the general well-being of his wife. In exchange, she grants him rights to her income, and certain types of assets she owns. The marriage transaction is initiated by the man as he undertakes to fulfill those responsibilities. Because the man is the one to initiate the transaction, he is also the one who is empowered to end it.

This may be compared to an employment agreement (although the transactions have many differences as well, obviously, and I would not want a husband and wife to see themselves in these roles). An employee accepts responsibility to perform specific tasks for his employer. In exchange, the employer pledges to pay a certain sum. The employment agreement is within the employee's control, even though we usually think of the employer as having power; in halachah, the employee is the one empowered to break the contract, and the employer is not. The wife is the 'employer' in our case, and the husband is the 'employee'.

I should note, though, that the wife does have recourse, even though she does not initiate the divorce. In the event that she wants to be divorced, the Rambam notes that she has the ability to refuse to be with him intimately because of her distaste for marriage to him, and then the beit din will compel him to divorce her. She would forfeit her ketubah payment in that case, but this is logical, since the point of the ketubah payment is to keep husbands from divorcing their wives precipitously. [I should note that the Shulchan Aruch Even haEzer 77:2 is less clear on the topic of compelling him to divorce her.]

Tonight I received an email reply, pointing out that presenting marriage as a financial transaction is rather off-putting. I agree, but here is my thought in response:

As I understand it, within Judaism, holiness does not come from ritual, ceremony, and a moment in time. Rather, holiness comes from the way one lives, in an ongoing way. Witness the way the Jews met their Creator at Sinai, and then created a Golden Calf. The relationship with the Divine is a product of a life lived with deep spiritual sensitivity.

The same is true, within my understanding, for human relationships. Despite the "love at first sight" dream, for most people love is a product of shared experiences and growth over time, not a chance encounter or an individual date. Each moment deepens and strengthens the bond.

Combining those two points: The single act of a wedding should not be conflated with the lifetime of marriage. A wedding is, indeed, a transaction, which sets the stage for a shared life by defining the rules by which the couple will function. It is a formal contract, outlining roles and responsibilities. Once that has been laid out, the couple are then in a position to live their lives together, in love and in holiness.

To compare it to a different field: We register in school and we pay tuition in order to make it possible for us to learn. Learning and growth are our goals, but we need to engage in a contract in order to set up the relationships which will make the learning/growth experience possible.

Does this make sense to you? What would you have said, in response to either or both of the emails I received?

Monday, February 25, 2013

Of meetings and moods

I commented to someone the other day that I enjoy meetings, and it's actually true. If the cause is good, if the people are committed, if the agenda is planned carefully, then a meeting can be wonderful.

One of the challenges in holding a good meeting, though, is in the external elements, factors which have no business influencing the meeting but will do so anyway. Examples:

The music someone had playing in the car on the way to the meeting. Songs with drums and electric guitar may create an aggressive mood, while some types of classical music may encourage patience and thought.

Did participants come to the meeting straight from work, or from the gym? Depression can be heavily influenced by a shortage of neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine. Exercise increases concentrations of these neurotransmitters by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system. There’s more to it, too; see here for some fascinating information.

The more people sleep, the calmer they tend to be. [I did not sleep at all last night, not a wink; let's just say today was not a calm day for me. But thank Gd, I made it through leining the megillah and delivering mishloach manos without crashing.]

The type of food one was eating before coming to the meeting, as well as the speed and tenor of the meal.

Time with family – I know I'm much better at a meeting if I come from reading with my kids. Regrettably, that isn't frequent enough…

Reading the news, naturally, will influence a mood.

For someone who was in the beis medrash, the mood is influenced by the type of learning [s]he was doing before the meeting – Was it humbling mussar? Strict halachah? Complex gemara? (See Berachos 31a, instructing us to learn something simple and straightforward before davening.)

I'm not sure I have a real point here – like I said, it's been a very long two days - other than to say that when someone sitting opposite you at a meeting displays  an idiosyncratic reaction, it might be a good idea to consider the external factors involved.

[After writing this post, I found another post of mine on meetings, from back in 2009.]

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Drinking and Purim

I know I have readers who dislike the annual post on the theme of Drinking on Purim. Sorry.


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

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

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

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

1) There is no reason to give alcohol to minors who are pre-bar mitzvah to drink on Purim. It is not necessary for their fulfillment of any mitzvah. The practice might be secularly legal as sacramental wine - consult an attorney - but it is a foolish and dangerous ritual and therefore prohibited as endangering our children as well as violating our obligation of chinuch for our children.

I do believe there is a difference between giving children under the age of obligation in mitzvot a taste of wine from the formal Shabbat Kiddush (not the one in shul; I mean the one at dinner/lunch!) and engaging them in Purim drinking. The former is a formal setting, and no one (I hope) is drinking to get a buzz. On Purim, though, because the general drinking is more loose and more geared toward celebration, I believe that the rule should be that children drink no alcohol at all.

2) If your own child is a minor, but older than bar mitzvah, and able to handle a small amount of wine, then it makes sense to help your child fulfill the mitzvah with a small amount, in a supervised setting, assuming this is legal in your jurisdiction.

3) I beleve adults should not drink on Purim in the presence of young children, beyond what would normally be consumed at a meal on Shabbat. Immature children cannot tell when we are in control and when we are not, cannot comprehend the dangers associated with alcohol, cannot accept the idea that adults can do what children are not permitted to do, and cannot understand the difference between Purim and the rest of the year.

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

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

And not to be a party-pooper at all, but those who want to know more about this theme should see Shaarei Teshuvah of Rav Chaim Margaliyot (printed with a standard Mishneh Berurah), in his final comment on Orach Chaim:

ויותר יש לזרז עצמו בד"ת במקום שיש שם איזה שמחה אף אם היא שמחה של מצוה ועיין בסוף סוכה בענין שמחת בית השואבה וכן מבואר לעיל סימן תקכ"ט אדם אוכל ושותה ושמח ברגל ולא ימשוך בבשר ויין ובשחוק וקלות ראש לפי שאין השחוק וקלות ראש שמחה אלא הוללות וסכלות ולא נצטוינו על הוללות וסכלות אלא על שמחה שיש בה עבודת היוצר עכ"ל והוא לשון רבינו הרמב"ם ז"ל והמפרשים ז"ל פירשו לשחוק אמרתי מהולל ר"ל שיהיה באיזה ענין שיהיה השחוק הוא הוללות עבט"ז לעיל
אך לשמחה מה זו עושה ר"ל שלענין שמחה אין להחליט שאינה יפה שבאמ' יש שמחה של מצוה ולכן יש ליתן לב לדעת מה זו עושה ר"ל מה טובה אם הוא שמחה של מצוה או לא אך הואיל ואפשר כי מתוך אכילה ושתיה והוללת יתמשך לשחוק וקלות ראש לכן יקח תבלין לבסם השמחה בד"ת וחדוות ה' יהיה מעוזו ויטב לבו בד"ת וז"ש וטוב לב משתה תמיד
It is even more necessary to energize one’s self with words of Torah in a place where there is joy, even if it is joy associated with a mitzvah. See the end of Succah regarding simchas beis hashoevah. And so is explained in the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 529, “One should eat, drink and be happy on the holiday, but not draw himself after meat and wine and laughter and lightheadedness, for laughter and lightheadedness are not joy, but empty celebration and foolishness. We are not instructed in empty celebration and foolishness, but in joy which includes service of the Creator.” This is a citation from the Rambam.
The sages explained the verse (Kohelet 2:2), “I have called laughter ‘empty celebration’” to mean that in any form, laughter is empty celebration. See the Taz earlier. [I don’t know which comment from the Taz he means.]
But “What does joy accomplish (Kohelet 2:2)” means that regarding joy, one should not conclude that it is not good. In truth, there is joy associated with mitzvot! Therefore, one should set his heart to know what joy can accomplish, meaning, what is its nature – is it joy associated with a mitzvah, or not. But since it is possible that one will be drawn to laughter and lightheadedness as a result of eating, drinking and empty celebration, therefor, one should take spices to sweeten the joy with words of Torah, and his strength will be in the joy of Gd, and his heart will be good with words of Torah. This is the meaning of ‘One of good heart is always at a feast.’

I would also add here a helpful link to an article by Rav Moshe Tzuriel; my thanks to Joseph for his comment on last year's post.

May we have wonderful and safe Purim - ליהודים היתה אורה ושמחה וששון ויקר!
Chag Purim Sameiach,

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Mashiach and Religious Coercion?

Rambam's classic identification of Mashiach, in Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 11:4, goes:

ואם יעמוד מלך מבית דוד הוגה בתורה ועוסק במצוות כדוד אביו, כפי תורה שבכתב ושבעל פה, ויכוף כל ישראל לילך בה ולחזק בדקה, וילחם מלחמות ד', הרי זה בחזקת שהוא משיח

Which I would translate into English as:
Should a king arise from the house of David, who will study Torah and perform mitzvot as did David his ancestor, following the written and spoken Torah, and should he compel all of Israel to walk in its ways and strengthen it, and should he fight the wars of G-d, then it may be assumed that he is Mashiach.

So here is my question: What does "compel" mean? What did it mean for Rambam, and what does it mean for us? What do we expect to happen tomorrow, when Mashiach comes?

Monday, February 18, 2013

7 Adar

I wanted to write something new for 7 Adar this year, but I didn't come up with anything I felt worthy. So I'm posting the piece below, from several years ago.

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

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

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

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

Moshe defies Gd multiple times, in multiple scenarios, including:
Gd orders Moshe to return to Egypt and save the Jews; Moshe declines.

Gd instructs Moshe to give the Jews the Torah on the 6th of Sivan; per the gemara, Moshe alters the date to the 7th of Sivan. (Granted that commentators see this as reading the mind of Gd.)

Gd declares His desire to destroy the idolatrous, rebellious nation; Moshe denies Gd the opportunity.

Gd informs Moshe that he will die; Moshe instructs Gd in choosing a new leader.

Gd instructs Moshe to remain in the desert; Moshe rails against his fate, before finding acceptance.

And yet, through it all, Gd describes Moshe as בכל ביתי נאמן הוא, the most loyal member of the Divine house. ככל אשר צוה ה' את משה, Following every word Gd instructed Moshe, so Moshe spoke and so Moshe did.

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

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

Tanach is filled with people who refuse Divine instructions. Pharaoh. Bilam. And, on the good side, Yonah. What marks Moshe’s refusal as unique (although Yonah’s resembles this) is that his is not denial, it is defiance.

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

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

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

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

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

יהי זכרו ברוך.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Derashah: A Judaism of Fire (Terumah)

This Shabbos I'm speaking at a Shabbaton; you can find the flyer here. The theme of the Shabbos morning derashah is "A Judaism of Fire". The writing is not terribly complex or deep; it's not that kind of occasion. Still, I think it may resonate with some readers, so here it is:

Every time I visit this shul I take note of the beautiful drawings of the new building you're raising, and that reminds me of the old story of a visitor to Israel who attends a concert in the brand new Soloveitchik Hall.
The visitor admires the remarkable acoustics, the magnificent architectural detail, the fine furnishings. He asks one of the ushers, "Is this hall named for Joseph Soloveitchik, the great rabbi?" The usher responds, "No, it's named for Harold Soloveitchik, the writer."
The visitor thinks for a moment, but the name is unfamiliar. He asks, "What did he write?"
To which the usher responds, "A check."

This morning we read about the construction of the first magnificent synagogue, the Mishkan, the portable Temple in which the Jews connected with Gd during their 39-year journey from Mount Sinai into Israel, and then for another 440 years in the land of Israel itself. The construction was a remarkable feat, product of a collaboration of men and women who were expert in crafts ranging from weaving to leatherwork to woodwork to metalwork. The first director of the project was none other than Moshe Rabbeinu, our master Moses, who brought us the Divine command, "They shall build for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them."

This morning's parshah, and the one we read next week, include more than 200 verses of instructions for creating the mishkan and populating it with ritual furnishings. But Gd did more than tell Moshe, "Build this," "Make  that."
  • The Talmud[1] notes that Gd told Moshe, "This is the form of the menorah." The sages suggest that Moshe at first experienced difficulty understanding the Divine instructions regarding the menorah he was to build, until Gd showed him a menorah of fire. "This is what you shall make."
  • More: A verse in our Torah portion[2] says that Gd showed Moshe the Mishkan's vessels at Mount Sinai. According to the Talmud,[3] Gd displayed to Moshe fiery images of the Ark that would hold the two tablets, the Table on which special bread would be placed, and the aforementioned menorah.
  • A midrash[4] goes even further, citing an additional verse and saying הכל הראה לו דמות אש, Gd displayed to Moshe everything, in fire.
In addition to presenting verbal instructions, Gd showed Moshe images of everything he was to create, and here we learn a pedagogic lesson that extends beyond the instructions for a building: Don't just tell them, show them. Demonstrate it.

As our topic this morning is how we raise Jewish children, one lesson here is that we need to do more than tell our community's children about our ideals; we need to live these ideals, visibly. I know this is likely obvious, but I state it as a first important step for parents, and for all of us, as adults; we are role models by dint of our simple presence.

Last night we highlighted the problems of a Jewish generation some 2700 years ago, a generation that lacked a clear vision of Judaism. Looking for a vision which would not be too narrow or divisive, I proposed a broad, ground-level ideology of "Just Jewish". The idea is simple enough to transmit – but the education Gd gave to Moshe reminds us that if our children are to adopt this or any other ideology, they need more than just to hear about it; they need to see it lived in front of them, in our daily actions.

But that's just Step One; for Step Two, I refer you to the words of the playwright Franz Kafka, in a letter he dedicated to his father:[5]
"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 … How one could do anything better with that material than get rid of it as fast as possible, I could not understand; precisely the getting rid of it seemed to me to be the devoutest action."

I want to come back to Kafka's scathing words in a few minutes, but first I'd like to read you another passage. This is a text from the more famous Soloveitchik – not Harold – describing how he learned about Judaism. In a eulogy [for his son-in-law's mother], Rabbi Soloveitchik said of his own mother,
"I used to watch her arranging the house in honor of a holiday. I used to see her recite prayers; I used to watch her recite the Torah portion every Friday night and I still remember the nostalgic tune. I learned from her very much. Most of all I learned that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in a living experience. She taught me that there is a flavor, a scent and warmth to mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life - to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders. Without her teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive.[6]"

Let us be clear: The central difference between Franz Kafka's experience and that of Rabbi Soloveitchik is not about level of observance, it's not about "formal compliance with the law". It's not about Kafka attending synagogue four days each year, and Rabbi Soloveitchik's mother praying daily. Rather, the point is inspiration! Visiting the synagogue just four days each year can be inspiring, and living a halachic lifestyle can be dull and dry. But Kafka's father was indifferent, and Rabbi Soloveitchik's mother conveyed a Judaism that had a flavor, a scent, a warmth – a heartfelt inspiration.

This message is displayed in the way Gd showed Moshe how to construct the Mishkan. He did not simply show Moshe a diagram of an Ark, a model of a Menorah. It was של אש, it was of fire! Indeed, the Torah describes Judaism as אשדת, a religion of fire![7] Our Judaism must crackle with energy, radiating heat, shining with brilliant light, this is an entity we wish to create, to perpetuate, to convey from generation to generation!

Of course, this presupposes that the adult feels that fire. We can't fake it; kids will detect that in less than the time it took me to state this sentence. So what does a parent do if he doesn't feel the flavor, the scent, the warmth? If shul is as dull for him as it was for Kafka's father, if cooking a Shabbos meal is boring, if she feels a duty to pass along Judaism to her children but opening up a chumash makes her feel like she's back in the worst part of her Hebrew school experience, how can she achieve inspiration? Where will the fire come from?

Some suggest that we store up our strongest emotions from various experiences, and call them to mind when we need to be moved.[8] Others suggest that we meditate. Others suggest that we look at the world with wide, reverent eyes, and recognize the beauty of Gd's Creation. All of these are valuable recommendations.

Personally, though, my favorite route is the advice of Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the last head of the Volozhin yeshiva. In his commentary to the Torah,[9] Rabbi Berlin wrote, "Gardens have many kinds of seeds. Still, each garden has one central variety, and small quantities of other varieties are planted around it. So, too, each Jew is filled with the mitzvot of Gd, but each has one special mitzvah in which he is extra careful."

In other words: The Torah has many, many mitzvos – 613, and then some! There are mitzvos of prayer. There are mitzvos of generosity. There are mitzvos of study. There are mitzvos of ritual. There are mitzvos of gardening and mitzvos of construction and mitzvos of calligraphy and mitzvos of medicine and mitzvos of creativity and mitzvos of music. There are mitzvos of sacrifice and asceticism, and there are mitzvos of indulgence and pleasure. There is mysticism and there is rationalism, there are chasidim and there are misnagdim, there are farmers and entertainers and social workers and scholars and writers. Torah presents a landscape of religious activity as broad and varied as humanity itself, and although we are expected to work toward achieving the whole of it, different aspects of that landscape will resonate with different people.

When we find a mitzvah to which our nature responds, which moves our heart to sing, which brings us fulfillment and a sense of, "Yes, that's what I wanted to do," then we will be inspired – and that inspiration can spill over into the rest of our Judaism.

The same applies to helping our community's children find their own inspiration.

Torah is too broad to expect that a child, unsophisticated and narrow in his experience, is going to find all of it to be beautiful and motivating. There are mitzvos that require sitting still and concentrating, a challenge at any age but certainly in adolescence. Some mitzvos are tough until one gets to the age when hormones settle down. Understanding certain mitzvos requires a great deal of contemplation. Appreciating other mitzvos requires life experience. And some mitzvos, let's face it, will never be appealing within today's world.

But again, Torah is so big and broad that everyone can find the spark from which the entire Torah, in its variegated beauty and multifarious colours, will catch fire. If children see adults living an inspired Judaism, with what resonates for us; if we offer our children a range of Jewish opportunities, to help them find what resonates for them and use it as an anchor; then we will have a much greater chance of succeeding in passing along our Judaism.

The ideas I have expressed here are not complex, perhaps the midrash, the Netziv, Kafka and Rav Soloveitchik are unfamiliar, but really, passing along Judaism is not the exclusive province of scholars of esoteric text, or deep mystical thought. Exposing our ideals, demonstrating that they inspire us, displaying the fiery image of the mishkan and its vessels, are activities each of us can do.

Of course, we have no guarantees. A parent can do everything by the book, and children will still grow up and become independent and chart their own paths, and who can guess where that will lead? Many, many fine parents have lived their ideals with enthusiasm, raising children who then said, "I'm glad that works for you, but it's not for me."

Nonetheless, when we invest the time to think about and define our ideals; when we invest the effort to live those ideals; and when we invest the heart to do it with fiery enthusiasm, then we, like Moshe, will build a mishkan, and we will see fulfillment of that Divine promise, "ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם – When you build a sanctuary for Me, I will dwell in your midst."

[1] Menachot 29a, based on Bamidbar 8:4
[2] Shemot 26:30
[3] Menachot 29a
[4] Psikta Zutrita Shemot 25:9, based on Shemot 25:9
[5] http://www.writersmugs.com/books/books.php?book=87&name=Kafka&title=Letter_to_His_Father
[6] http://www.traditiononline.org/news/originals/Volume%2017/No.%202/A%20Tribute%20to%20the.pdf
[7] Devarim 33:2
[8] Bnei Machshavah Tovah
[9] Haamek Davar to Bamidbar 24:6

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Challenge of Religious Conspicuous Consumption

Surely you have heard about the February 8th Wall Street Journal article, "After These Jewish Prayer Services, Things Come 'To Life' at Open Bar". Its depiction of synagogues desperately seeking to attract attendees by advertising expensive liquor and high-end food is perfect for the Jewish chain e-mail circuit, inviting people to tsk tsk self-righteously, add a note about a person they know at one of the mentioned synagogues or about the kiddush at their own house of worship, and pass it along to hundreds of their closest friends.

Herewith an excerpt:
As early as January, Rabbi Marc Schneier was already well into planning his synagogue's summer worship in New York's posh Hamptons community. He is lining up guest speakers, interviewing assistant rabbis—and considering ways to improve on the martini bar.
The "L'chaim" table of high-price spirits is the most popular feature of The Hampton Synagogue's Saturday summer service. "There is always vodka, an assortment of single malts, tequila," says Robert Fisher, a friend of the rabbi who serves as adviser on food and drink.
Rabbi Schneier notes that the fetes don't get overly boisterous. It is all about the "M-word," he insists—not martinis, but "moderation." The same might not be said about the food. One weekend the entrees included pan-seared sesame salmon and sliced steak with horseradish cream. There is always seafood salad—the rabbi's favorite dish—albeit made with pollock and whiting since the congregation adheres to kosher laws banning shellfish. The "herring bar" features 12 different variations named after each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

It's easy to mock this rather pathetic conduct – but contrarian that I am, I do need to note that we have a long history of righteous leaders who provide extravagant feasts for their company, and particularly on religious occasions.
* Consider Avraham, who is described in Bereishit 18 as slaughtering a bull and preparing bread and cases in order to feed just three guests. Per Bava Metzia 86b, he actually slaughtered three bulls, just to give each guest his own complete tongue in mustard.
* And let us not forget Shemuel II 6:13; during the parade when the aron is returned by the Philistines, King David slaughters two animals with every six steps taken by the bearers of the ark.
* Or consider King Solomon; per Melachim I 5:1-8, his daily toll included thirty oxen and one hundred sheep, with unnumbered other animals thrown in as well.

Of course, there is ample room to differentiate between the 'kiddush' celebrations described in the article and these biblical examples:
* Avraham was taking care of guests. King David brought these as offerings to Gd. How many people King Solomon fed each day is unclear, and it is also not certain that the biblical text approves of his consumption.
* Further, the synagogues, as described in the article, use this to attract worshippers, an image which is wholly unwholesome.
* In addition, the article does not make clear that the underwriters of these bacchanalias also give extravagantly to tzedakah, as we expect Avraham, King David and King Solomon did.
* The article hints at a level of competitiveness, and the possibility that those who cannot afford such expenditures might be embarrassed.
* And, the image of drunkenness and the scourge of addiction is a subtext throughout the article.

Despite those caveats, questions remain with me regarding conspicuous consumption in association with religion:
1. How do we feel about splurging on food for a wedding, bar mitzvah, or kiddush, when one has the means?
2. If we react with disdain, are we disgusted by the actual extravagant feasts, or by external issues like the ones I mention above?
3. Is our reaction a function of traditional Jewish values, or of contemporary values? [And does that matter?]

Monday, February 11, 2013

Jewish parents - How do you feel about these cartoons?

I am a big believer in the message of Rabbi Elazar (Avot 2), "Know how to respond to an apikorus."

To me, this is important not in terms of merely knowing how to counter criticism, but in terms of understanding our flaws, and correcting them. The apikorus, when not caught up in his personal baggage, can be the best "lie detector" for us, keeping us honest. Sometimes, the response to the apikorus is "You're right; I made a mistake."

With that in mind, here is a cartoon from a site called The Oatmeal, originally published as part of a broader piece criticizing the ideals as well as excesses of various western religions. [Some of the other cartoons are stronger examples, but the language isn't really for my blog.] You may need to click on it to get a clear image:

So, Jewish parents: How would you respond?
Is it entirely inapplicable to us, or too much of a caricature to be relevant?
Is it accurate in its depiction, but wrong because this is proper pedagogy?
Is it accurate in its depiction, and correct in its criticism?
None of the above?

My first instinct is that this criticism isn't about religion at all, but about poor parenting. On the other hand, religion can bring out the worst in parents, particularly those who don't have a clear understanding of the religion they are promoting. I can see insecure parents, who know they are supposed to market ideals they don't really understand, falling into the trap of this kind of parenting. So in a sense, it's an on-the-mark critique of the nexus of poor parenting and religious ignorance.

What say you?

Friday, February 8, 2013

Someone is going to hear this derashah (Mishpatim)

I was supposed to speak in a shul in the US this Shabbos, but due to what can only be called a remarkable series of unfortunate events, including:

1. An airliner that was de-iced on Thursday afternoon with a hatch open, so that fluid entered and damaged an electrical panel...

2. A 45-minute trip back through Canadian customs after disembarking, so that we ended up missing any possibility for boarding a new flight before the storm hit...

3. A trip to an airport hotel in which our shuttle was struck by another shuttle; we eventually reached the hotel close to midnight...

4. A fresh attempt early this morning on a flight that boarded on time - but would have missed our connection by over an hour had we actually stayed on board, instead of disembarking when the delay started looking likely...

5. A scary, 90-minute drive home through snowed-in highways and streets...

...we never made it out of Toronto.

In order to get some mileage out of the derashah I was going to give, here it is; enjoy!

Shemitah in the wilderness?
Have you ever asked your children to do something that seemed perfectly normal to you, and had them look at you with an expression of pure incomprehension? I imagine that Moshe received such a reaction in our parshah, when he stood at Sinai and told the Jews about the mitzvah of Shemitah, saying, "Plant your land for six years… In the seventh year, leave it alone. The needy will eat, and that which they leave will go to the animals.[1]"

"Plant your land?" What, the sand outside our tents? The rocks on Mount Sinai? Sure, we're headed to Israel someday, but right now all we see is desert! And by the way, Moshe, why did you insert this among the laws of keeping an honest judicial system and letting non-Jewish workers rest on Shabbos?

Perhaps Shemitah is taught to the Jews at the start of their journey because of a philosophical lesson it conveys, about building community by being people of berachah [blessing].

To be a blessing and so build community
Another agricultural mitzvah is that of Peah, which requires us, at harvest time, to leave the last part of our standing grain for the needy. Writing in the 13th century, Rabbi Aharon haLevi explained in the Sefer haChinuch that one benefit of this mitzvah is that it trains us to stop short when we could take for ourselves. A person who observes Peah, declining to take his entire field for himself, develops what the Sefer haChinuch calls a נפש ברכה, a spirit of blessing.

The Sefer haChinuch's key words, נפש ברכה [a spirit of blessing], actually come from Mishlei [Proverbs], a book of Tanach attributed to King Solomon. The author praises a נפש ברכה,[2] [a spirit of blessing], and the commentators there explain that term as the Sefer haChinuch uses it – for a person to be וותרן בממונו, forgiving his right to material wealth, leaving it for others.

It's about our own improvement
But the help we give to others is not really the point. As the Sefer haChinuch explained, the point is in the personality we develop, and the way we will be better off, and therefore society will be better off.

It is axiomatic that the hand that grasps the world and all of its riches tightly in youth will one day be compelled to relax its grip and, one by one, release its acquisitions and relinquish its ambitions. Even before that mortal day arrives, the reach of the hand will never encompass everything the heart desires. A human being who feels a compulsion to take hungers perpetually, and is frustrated eternally. And a human being like that is an unreliable neighbour.

On the other hand, a human being who, as the Sefer haChinuch said, is aware that Gd has filled him with goodness, a human being who is a וותרן, forgiving rather than grasping for more, is שמח בחלקו, rejoices in his portion without concern for that which lies beyond its boundaries. This is a person of blessing, because people like these are the foundation stones of community. The strength of the community depends on the strength of these individuals.

Be a blessing upon entering Israel
Our mission of becoming a וותרן, and thereby a piece of a strong society, was of primary importance when our ancestors first entered the land of Israel.

Avraham and Sarah make their way from the familiar eastern portion of the Fertile Crescent, through the way-station of Charan, heeding a Divine call of לך לך, Go. Their caravan is buoyed along by a Divine promise of protection, but also a Divine command: והיה ברכה. Be a berachah. Be a blessing.[3]

We now know what that means: As we saw King Solomon use the term in Mishlei, as we saw the Sefer haChinuch explain: Avraham and Sarah! Be a blessing! Gifted with holy land, do not become people whose identity is defined by that which you hold in your grasp.

Avraham and Sarah heed the call:
  • After a war, Avraham is offered spoils, and he declines them;
  • Gd personally offers Avraham every material blessing, and Avraham says he is not interested;
  • Sarah surrenders her place in the household so that Avraham will have a child through Hagar;
  • Avraham parts ways with his greedy cousin Lot – and Avraham, who has been promised the land, offers Lot the chance to choose territory first.[4]
Avraham and Sarah's family are commanded to be a blessing, to be וותרנים, relinquishing claims, and so to become people of blessing within the society they will build.

The lesson of Shemitah in the wilderness
And now, to return to our initial question regarding the value of shemitah in the wilderness: The Jews stand at Sinai, an adolescent nation, newly unshackled beginning to grow into its muscles. They expect to return to that land of Israel of Avraham and Sarah, and there to evolve from families into tribes into a nation. At the inception of this journey, Moshe admonishes them: Do not focus on what you can take.
  • Maintain an honest judicial system; don't take the property of the vulnerable.
  • Let your non-Jewish workers rest on Shabbos; don't take advantage of your right to their service.
  • And learn the lessons of the Sabbatical year. In Shemitah we are taught to withdraw our hands. We choose not to take. Shemitah is about staying our hand.

Israel today
Avraham and Sarah are told to be that berachah when they enter Israel, the Jews at Sinai are told likewise by Moshe, and today, when we are again home, in our land, we remain under this command. I speak not of the way we interact with our Arab neighbours, a relationship governed by a complex set of laws and realities, but how we interact with each other.

In our time we have witnessed the realization of our millenia-old dream with the establishment of an autonomous Jewish state in Israel. We have observed the incredible flourishing of a country in which Jews of all ethnicities and all types of observance can thrive, in which the government funds Torah study, in which a Jewish army warns the world, as Rav Soloveitchik said, that Jewish blood is not hefker, to be spilled with abandon. It is a land where every Jew belongs. It is a miracle of incalculable scope, for which we should give thanks every day. But the task of Avraham and Sarah, the charge of Moshe with shemitah, remains relevant: Not to perpetually hunger for more, but to relate to each other without taking and grasping, to develop lives of blessing.

And beyond Israel, in our own personal lives, here in Denver, we are also challenged to be וותרנים, and so to be a blessing.

The idea is simple, but its implementation is not; sociologists around the world, from the US to Europe to the Far East, label our modern era "rights-infatuated" and condemn our society as acquisitive. Scholars of government and philosophy debate the relative value of Aristotelian virtue, the Kantian categorical imperative and lofty Confucian ideals, but at the end of the day many of us live in the unsophisticated fear of losing that to which we have claim. We have difficulty achieving the personal strength to hold back.

I am not naïve; I know that there are times when we must take, and not forgive. Even our matriarch Sarah did not forgive everything, as we know from her battle with Hagar and her eviction of Yishmael. There are rights we must defend; there are times to hold the line, to litigate, even to go to war. But our first choice, our gut reaction, in our daily life and our communal life, is to learn the lesson of shemitah from our parshah, to learn the lesson of Avraham and Sarah, to trust in Gd and to be a berachah.

In our personal lives:
  • When a neighbouring driver tries to cut into the lane in front of us, or when someone cuts to the kiddush table in front of us, to respond first with the Berachah reflex;
  • When our children come home from school and immediately clamor for first rights to snack or the computer or some toy, to train them in the Berachah reflex.

And in our community as well, our vision ought to include the full ambit of Berachah:
  • To create a shul in which individuals are looked after, so that they can safely exercise וותרנות, declining to take;
  • To lead Jewish institutions which function in a generous culture of community, not jealously guarding resources but acknowledging that there is a need for, and there is space for, everyone;
  • To recognize our citizenship in the broader city, and adopt a policy not of asking, "What are my rights," but instead, "What can I provide?"

This is what it means, on a day-to-day level, to be a blessing for our community, to be a descendant of Avraham and Sarah, to be a practitioner of the mitzvah of shemitah.

When the Jews returned from Babylon to build the second Beit haMikdash, they were frustrated by the slow pace of their work, by the poverty they suffered, by the foes they faced. But the prophet Zecharyah pledged to them that if they would remain loyal to Gd, then Gd would aid their efforts. "And it will be," he said, "As you were once a curse among the nations, House of Yehudah and House of Yisrael, so now will I rescue you – and you will again be a Berachah.[5]" As Avraham and Sarah were a berachah when they entered the land, so will you be a berachah today.

When we fulfill this, when we are loyal to that mission of Avraham and Sarah and of shemitah, when we learn to relinquish our demands, then we will be a blessing and we will build a strong community, and for us Zecharyah concluded with a promise: "אל תיראו, תחזקנה ידיכם." "Be not afraid – your hands will be strengthened."

[1] Shemos 23:10-11
[2] Mishlei 11:25
[3] Targum renders it as "and you will be blessed," to make it consistent with the surrounding verses, but this is difficult. Rashi, in his first comment, is sensitive to the problem.
[4] It is most telling, too, that Lot chooses to live in the selfish city of Sdom! And we know how that story ends.
[5] Zecharyah 8:13