Monday, November 25, 2013

Thanksgiving and Chanukah: Twins or Opposites?

As an unrehabilitated American, I grew up viewing Thanksgiving - the one celebrated on the last Thursday in November, not the Canadian one - as a holiday unlike traditional Christian and pagan celebrations. In our shul community, no one would have suggested that a Jew celebrate Halloween, much less Easter or December 25th. Thanksgiving, though, was considered a more pareve celebration in the U.S., and many Jews used the opportunity to have family gatherings, eat turkey and watch football. [For a discussion of the halachic propriety of celebrating Thanksgiving, see the article here; naturally, there are multiple views.]

This is why many American Jews are now making a big deal out of the extremely unusual overlap of Thanksgiving and Chanukah this year; Aish haTorah, for example, offers a full feature on Thanksgivukkah, accompanied by this comedy routine by Stephen Colbert. To many American Jews, Thanksgiving is benign, and therefore the overlap is more notable than, say, that of Pesach and Easter.

Taking this overlap a step further, some have contended that the two holidays are basically similar; both express gratitude to G-d for rescuing us from harm. However, in my view, these celebrations are not at all comparable. American Thanksgiving is an "apple pie" sort of day, on which the average citizen might contemplate his bounty while reclining in an easy chair, one hand on his belly and the other holding a remote control. The theme of gratitude for a good harvest lends itself to a זמן שמחתנו of sorts, a joy at surviving drought and blight with good for the coming winter.

Chanukah, though, is a more grim and complicated holiday for me. The themes of Chanukah are war against brutal foes, assimilation into another culture, Jew battling against Jew for the future of Judaism, the hard process of rebuilding a nation that has been enslaved to another, and the difficult transition of the Chashmonaim from priests to warriors to kings. Thanksgiving smiles with a full stomach (leaving the concern for what colonists did to Native Americans for another day, of course); Chanukah thanks G-d while wiping away blood and bandaging wounds. Thanksgiving is user-friendly; Chanukah is brutal.

Certainly, we celebrate Chanukah with joy and gratitude to G-d, but let's not sand down the rough edges in our desire to have a happy day. Better to think through the challenges posed by the stories of the Maccabim and the Hellenizing Mityavnim, the history of our relationship with the Greeks, and the rise and fall of the Chashmonai [Hasmonean] kings, and emerge from this Chanukah with a better understanding of what those stories and that history mean for our own lives.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Capping the Cost of Jewish Education

This morning, the following email from UJA of Greater Toronto was in my in-box:

Innovative Pilot Project places a cap on cost of Jewish education
A new joint venture between UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, Robbins Hebrew Academy and The AVI CHAI Foundation may provide a major breakthrough in continuing to make Jewish education accessible and affordable to all.

iCAP Tuition, a ground-breaking initiative that will be offered at Robbins Hebrew Academy, will ensure that eligible families with three or more children at RHA and with a total gross income of between $200,000 and $300,000 will have their tuition capped at 15% of their income for Jewish education.

Applicable for students in Junior Kindergarten to Grade 8, iCAP Tuition augments UJA Federation’s current Tuition Assistance Program which provides financial relief to parents with a gross income of less than $200,000.

“We are excited to team up with Robbins Hebrew Academy and AVI CHAI Foundation on this exciting pilot, one that complements UJA Federation’s ongoing efforts to provide as many of our young people with a first-rate Jewish education,” says Ed Segalowitz, Executive Director, the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education.

“Every Jewish child deserves the opportunity for the very best Jewish and secular education within the warmest of school communities, that’s what we offer here, at Robbins Hebrew Academy and it’s why we are making sure that Jewish families, no matter their financial background, can have their children educated with us,” says Claire Sumerlus, Head of School, Robbins Hebrew Academy.

It's an interesting idea. Googling the concept turned up this OU page, with a February 2013 report on use of this system at a school in the Boston area.

The core concept seems to be: To help families with large numbers of children manage, so that they don't give up on Jewish day school.

In both cases, the schools involved are not serving the Orthodox community, and I can see why an Orthodox-affiliated school, with the larger family sizes in its student body, would have difficulty implementing this and may not even feel it is as necessary. Nonetheless, it's nice to dream...

Monday, November 11, 2013

Why does talking in shul bother you?

Some time back, I was in a minyan at which a family was celebrating a happy occasion. They had quite a few guests, including people who quite clearly were not regular shul attendees.

As happens when people see each other after a long hiatus, there was a good deal of conversation among those gathered. The noise disturbed some people davening near them, causing them to Shush loudly.

I turned to one of the Shushers and commented that the talking these people were doing didn't bother me much; I am far more troubled by the noise of people who know the value of davening, and talk anyway. To which the Shusher pointed out that their talking was disrespectful toward those around them.

I've thought quite a bit about our attitudes toward shul, and toward shul decorum, as my various posts on the topic on this blog indicate. But in contemplating that brief exchange, I had a thought that I had never formulated in quite this way before: Neither of us had our davening disturbed by noise itself, but rather by the issues accompanying the noise. He is disturbed by disrespect. I am disturbed by a lack of spirituality. It's not the noise, it's the baggage.

What do you think?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Shiur Theatre: Religious Coercion: A Modern Defense of Rachel

This Shabbos, Gd-willing, our Beit Midrash will present a new installation of Shiur Theatre during our "Matriarchs" Shabbaton.

We'll look at the story of Rachel and Lavan's terafim (working with the standard understanding that terafim were a form of humanoid idol), and attempt to offer a modern version of the story, and a defense of Rachel's attempt to dictate her father's religious practice.

Here is the source sheet I expect to distribute after the presentation:

Act Two: Does Halachah Require Coercion?
1.         Sefer haChinuch 239
להוכיח אחד מישראל שאינו מתנהג כשורה, בין בדברים שבין אדם לחבירו או בין אדם למקום
To instruct a Jew who does not act properly, whether in a relationship with others or in a relationship with Gd…

2.         Rabbi Yaakov Kanievsky, Kehillot Yaakov 10:54
ואמאי אסור לשנאותו? ונראה דלא מיירי ברשע ממש שחוטא חטאים מפורסמים, אלא שאינו נוהג כל כך כהוגן הראוי לפי ערכו...
Why is hating him prohibited [per Erchin 16b]? Apparently, this is not a wicked person who sins publicly; it is someone who does not act entirely properly, based upon his level…

3.         Rabbi Bentzion Uziel, Mishpetei Uziel 4:3:1
חיוב התוכחה, לבד מצות עשה שבה עוד מתחייב בבטולה בעבירה על לא תעשה דלא תעמוד על דם רעך, ובעשה דוהשבותו לו לרבות אבדת גופו וכל שכן הצלה מן העברה שיש בה אבידת הגוף והנפש
The obligation of rebuke, aside from its active mitzvah, also involves a transgression in its failure: You shall not stand by the blood of your brother. It also involves the mitzvah of ‘You shall restore it to him,’ which includes loss of his body and certainly, in saving a person from sinning, loss of his body and spirit.

4.         Talmud, Shevuot 39a-b
כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה...
All Jews are guarantors for each other…

5.         Nachmanides to Vayikra 19:17
"הוכח תוכיח את עמיתך" - מצוה אחרת, ללמדו תוכחת מוסר, "ולא תשא עליו חטא" שיהיה עליך אשם כאשר יחטא ולא הוכחת אותו.
"Instruct your peer" – This is another mitzvah, to teach him ethical instruction, "and you shall not bear sin for him," for should he sin and should you fail to rebuke him, you would bear guilt.

6.         Pirkei Avot 2:4
ואל תדין את חבירך עד שתגיע למקומו
And do not judge another until you reach his place.

7.         Tosafot Avodah Zarah 26b ולא
אף על פי שסתם כנענים עובדי כוכבים ומזלות הם ועוברין על שבע מצות מכל מקום אין מורידין
Although normal Canaanites are idolatrous, and they violate their seven commandments, still, we do not punish them.

8.         Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 8:10
מי שלא רצה אין כופין אותו לקבל תורה ומצות, וכן צוה משה רבינו מפי הגבורה לכוף את כל באי העולם לקבל מצות שנצטוו בני נח...
We do not compel someone to accept Torah and mitzvot if he does not wish to do so, and so Moshe instructed, in the name of Gd, to compel all who enter the world [only] to accept the mitzvot commanded to Noachides…

9.         Talmud, Eruvin 63a
כל מקום שיש בו חילול ד' אין חולקין כבוד לרב
In a matter involving desecration of Gd’s Name, we do not show honour to the great.

Act Three: Is a Coerced Religious Act Worthwhile?
10.      Rabbi Meir Simchah of Dvinsk, Or Sameach to Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Divorce 2:20
זה שהוא רוצה להיות מישראל, ורוצה הוא לעשות כל המצות ולהתרחק מן העבירות יצרו הוא שתקפו, וכיון שהוכה עד שתשש יצרו ואמר רוצה אני כבר גירש לרצונו 
This person wishes to be a Jew, and wishes to perform all of the mitzvot and distance himself from all transgressions, but his yetzer overpowers him. When he is struck to the point that his yetzer weakens, he says, "I wish to do this," and then he has divorced willingly.

11.      Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, pg. 249-250
If persons be compelled to forsake their religion which their hearts cleave to, and to come to the church… and this all their days, I ask, whether this be not this people's religion, unto which submitting, they shall be quiet all their days, without enforcing them to the practice of any other religion? And if this be not so, then I ask, will it not inevitably follow, that they not only permit but enforce people to be of no religion at all, all their days?

12.      Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, Meikeljohn translation, pg. 422
Let each thinker pursue his own path; if he shows talent, if he gives evidence of profound thought, in one word, if he shows that he possesses the power of reasoning—reason is always the gainer. If you have recourse to other means, if you attempt to coerce reason, if you raise the cry of treason to humanity, if you excite the feelings of the crowd, which can neither understand nor sympathize with such subtle speculations—you will only make yourselves ridiculous.

13.      Moses Mendelssohn, Jerusalem, Bennett translation, pg. 7
A man feels his own worth when he performs charitable acts… when he gives because he wants to. But if he gives because he must, all he feels are his chains.

14.      Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Trespass 8:8
והמשפטים הן המצות שטעמן גלוי וטובת עשייתן בעולם הזה ידועה כגון איסור גזל ושפיכות דמים וכיבוד אב ואם, והחוקים הן המצות שאין טעמן ידוע, אמרו חכמים חוקים חקתי לך ואין לך רשות להרהר בהן
Mishpatim are laws with revealed reasons and known benefits from their practice, like the prohibitions against theft and murder, and the mitzvah of honouring parents.
Chukim are laws without known reasons; the sages said, "I have engraved chukim for you, and you do not have permission to challenge them."

15.      Sefer haChinuch 16
אחרי הפעולות נמשכים הלבבות
After deeds are the hearts drawn.

16.      R' Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook, Letters of the Ra"ayah II pg. 186
ומש״כ מר לתמוה עלי במה שאני מקרב את הכל, גם את פושעי־ישראל כדי להחזירם בתשובה, וכתבתי לו ברמז כונתי, שכל מי שהוא מוכשר לעסוק בפנימיות רזי-תורה הוא מתמלא יותר מאור־החסד של תורת חסד, ועליו החובה לעסוק בתיקון נפולים ובקירוב רחוקים
Regarding my practice of drawing everyone near, including Jews who sin, in order to bring them to repentance: I have written a hint at my meaning to his honour, saying that anyone who is capable of involving himself in the inner secrets of Torah will be filled with the light of the Torah's generosity to a greater extent, and is obligated to involve himself in mending the collapses and bringing near those who are distant.

17.      R' Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz, Chazon Ish, Yoreh Deah 2:16
בזמן ההעלם שנכרתה האמונה מן דלת העם אין במעשה הורדה גדר הפרצה אלא הוספה הפרצה שיהי' בעיניהם כמעשה השחתה ואלמות ח״ו וכיון  שכל עצמנו לתקן אין הדין נוהג בשעה שאין בו תיקון ועלינו להחזירם בעבותות אהבה ולהעמידם בקרן אורה כמה שידינו מגעת.

At a time of [Divine] invisibility, when faith has been cut off from the poor of the nation, punishment does not mend the gap, but only increases it, for it appears like a deed of destruction and coercion, Gd-forbid. Since our entire goal is to repair, the law [of punishment] does not apply when it does not repair. We are obligated to bring them back with ropes of love, to bring them to the radiant light to the extent we can.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The last-minute dvar torah

I am asked, from time to time, to fill in with last-minute divrei torah; it happens on a weeknight between minchah and maariv, or at a minyan on Shabbos, or for a group of students in school. And I generally decline.

Certainly, I have delivered far too many last-minute divrei torah over the years to claim inexperience. But I believe that in general, the last-minute dvar torah is not a good idea.

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 139:1) rules that one is not permitted to lein from the Torah unless he has reviewed the reading multiple times, out of respect for the Torah.

The mishnah teaches that Chasidim haRishonim [early pious people] waited for a time before davening shemoneh esreih, and we have psukei d'zimra for similar preparation, out of respect for Gd. How much more so when we are talking about teaching Torah!

Tefillah is about my personal relationship with HaShem, and perhaps the needs of those for whom I daven, and it requires preparation; giving a dvar torah is about the spiritual life and Torah knowledge of the entire tzibbur [community] - even if said tzibbur doesn't see it that way - how much more so is preparation required.

And it's not only about the stakes, it's also about the odds of success with a last-minute effort:
HaShem understands our heartfelt intent, other human beings tend to grasp only our words and expressions, if that.
HaShem is merciful, other people, often, are not.
HaShem wants our prayers; human beings are often subjected to divrei torah against their will and choice.
If I have a poor prayer, I blew an opportunity, but I have another chance later that day; if I give a poor dvar torah, they may never pay attention to me again.

Therefore, I want to spend time first thinking about what I will say, to whom I am speaking, how it will be received, where I should stand, whether the door should be open or closed, whether I should be formal or casual, and so on.

To me, and I know it's not everyone's view, I'd rather skip a dvar torah than deliver one without significant forethought.

That's my thinking, anyway. Make sense?

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Random Acts of Kindness: Rabbi Estreicher

This video is so beautiful, and watching it takes only 97 seconds. I suppose it's more moving for me because I know some of the people involved, but I think this ought to lift anyone's day.