Monday, December 29, 2014

The popular practice of resurrecting esoteric prayers

Marking the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Yaakov Reischer (6 Tevet), and recognizing the popular trend of adding prayers that come from mystical or otherwise esoteric sources, here is a translation of a segment of Rabbi Reischer's Shevut Yaakov (2:44).

Rabbi Reischer, writing in the late 17th or early 18th century, was discussing a group that had taken upon itself to rise early to pray regarding the destruction of the Beit haMikdash. He was known for expressing himself boldly, and he does not disappoint here:

[The question:] "Let our master teach us: Recently, certain special people have accustomed themselves… to gather in the synagogue at the start of the final third of the night, and to lament the destruction [of the Temple]. Challengers have risen against them, and those who have concluded that this activity is not good and proper, as Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, 'Not all who wish to take upon themselves the title [of righteousness] may do so.' (Berachot 16b)"…

Response: I will begin with his final point, in which he wrote, "We will add that they are a group, and so there should be no concern for [the appearance of] self-righteousness." In my humble opinion, the opposite appears more likely. An individiual, specifically, who reveres Heaven and wishes to be strict for himself, and walks privately, is certainly remembered for the good, and there is no concern for self-righteousness… And even an individual, if he would act unusually in public, would have concern for self-righteousness; it would be appropriate for him to do everything privately…

Aside from all of this, it appears to me that there should be concern regarding doing this communally, since the sages already enacted the order of three [daily] prayers, parallel to the sacrificial offerings. Therefore, one who would add a communal prayer would violate the prohibition against adding. Although we follow Rabbi Yochanan's legal positions, and he said, "I wish that one would pray all day (Berachot 21a)," that referred to an individual taking on a voluntary prayer, if he could say something new therein…

For this reason I have always protested against initiators who have newly arrived, publishers who publish in the siddurim pleas and requests from the book Shaarei Zion and the Shelah, so that people recite these prayers in the community as well. In my humble opinion this is incorrect, and it involves violation of "Do not add" [and] "crossing the border established by the early ones," the order of prayers. There is also concern for Gittin 3a, "If you add words, people will come to remove" from the established prayer, enacted by early authorities. Especially one whose Torah is his trade, he certainly has concern for loss of Torah when increasing prayer inappropriately… If one wishes to add prayer, he may recite Tehillim, which is like involvement in Torah and which holds great power…

מה ששאל עוד וז"ל ילמדינו רבינו באשר שמקרוב התנהגו איזה יחידי סגולה... להתאסף לבה"כ בראש האשמורה השלישית של הלילה ולקונן על החרבן וקמו עליהן עוררין ומסיקין דמסקו אדעתייהו דלאו יאות ושפיר עבדי כדאיתא בפרק ב' דברכות דאמר רשב"ג לא כל הרוצה ליטול את השם יבא ויטול...

תשובה הנה במה דסיים אפתח שכת' "ונוסיף ע"ז דהם ציבורא דלית ביה משום חשש יוהרא" ולע"ד נראה יותר להיפך דדוקא יחיד ירא שמים שרוצה להחמיר על עצמו והצנע לכת ודאי זכור לטוב ואין בו משום יוהרא... וכן אפי' יחיד שעושה דבר בפרהסיא מה שהוא שלא כדרך העולם יש חשש יוהרא כי ראוי להיות הכל בהצנע...

ובר מן כל דין נ"ל דיש חשש לעשות כן בציבור כיון דכבר תקנו חכמים סדר תפילות בכל שלש פעמים כנגד הקרבנות נמצא דהמוסיף איזה תפילה בציבור עובר משום בל תוסיף. ואף ע"ג דקי"ל הלכתא כר' יוחנן הלואי שיתפלל אדם כל היום היינו ביחיד ובתורת נדבה אם יכול לחדש בה דבר...

ומהאי טעמא כל ימי אני קורא תגר שחדשים מקרוב באו המדפיסים והדפיסו אצל הסידורים תחנות ובקשות מספר שערי ציון ושל"ה וע"י כן מתפללין כן בציבור ולע"ד אין זה נכון ואיכא משום בל תוסיף על גבול שגבלו ראשונים סדר תפלות ואיכא למיחש למה דאיתא בגיטין אי מפשת דיבורא אתי למגזיה בתפלה הקבוע מה שתיקנו ראשונים. ובפרטות מי שתורתו אומנותו ודאי יש חשש ביטול תורה להרבות בתפלה יותר מדי... ואם רוצה להרבות בתפילה יוכל לומר תהלים שהוא כעוסק בתורה ויש בה סגולת הרבה...

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Tale of Two Tunics

I have a feeling I'm going to get in trouble for the following piece, but I like it too much to keep it to myself...

Bereishit is filled with haberdashery, from Eden chic to Esav's treasured garb, to Tamar's costume, to Yosef's palace ensemble. The clothing of Bereishit protects, conceals, deceives and honours. Perhaps the best-known clothing in this book, though, is Yosef's Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, a.k.a. his ketonet pasim.

Yosef's tunic is not the only biblical ketonet, though; another ketonet is a critical part of the kohen's uniform. (Shemot 28:39-40) Indeed, the Talmud connects these two ketonet garments explicitly, saying: "The kohen's ketonet atones for bloodshed, as Bereishit 37:31 says, 'And they slaughtered a goat, and they dipped [Yosef's] ketonet in the blood.'" (Zevachim 88b)

The talmudic logic seems to be that Yosef's brothers dipped his ketonet in blood to provide "evidence" of his death, and so the kohen's ketonet atones for bloodshed. This formula is odd on many levels, but here is a basic challenge: We are taught (Rosh haShanah 26a) that an entity which represents a person's criminality cannot also defend him. For example, the Kohen Gadol does not wear gold when he enters the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur; gold is reminiscent of the Golden Calf. So how can the kohen's ketonet simultaneously recall the bloody deception surrounding the sale of Yosef, and yet atone for bloodshed?

Let us look more closely at the sale of Yosef. The sons of Leah may have shunned Yosef because of Rachel. (Bereishit 37:2) They may have been turned off by Yosef's reports on their bad behaviour. (ibid.) Certainly, they were antagonized by Yosef's dreams. (ibid. 37:5-11) However, a passage in the Talmud (Shabbat 10b) contends that the sale of Yosef was actually triggered by two sela of wool, which marked his ketonet as unique.

As depicted in that talmudic passage and in Rashi's commentary there, Yosef's ketonet was not luxurious, and the brothers would not have envied such a small difference. Rather, the brothers were outraged by the fact that there was any difference, that Yaakov had marked this son as holding a unique role that they could not share. In their eyes, setting Yosef apart was an unjust attack on their legitimate membership in the family.

Long before the Enlightenment taught humanity to question received tradition regarding class and gender identities, Korach (Bamidbar 16) and King Uziahu (Divrei haYamim II 26) challenged the law that one must descend from Aharon in order to act as a kohen. Today, it is nearly universally axiomatic that "separate but equal" is unjust; as Justice Earl Warren wrote, separate is "inherently unequal." Our sense of fair play demands that human beings choose their destinations. Thus it is no surprise that Yosef's brothers would resent Yaakov's act of segregation, and that the Talmud would criticize it.

On the other hand, separation is fundamental to Judaism. At the genesis of Creation, G-d separates light and darkness, land and sea, and He stresses that life forms are to exist "according to their species". G-d separates Avraham and Sarah from their family. G-d says of the Jews, "I have separated you from the nations" (Vayikra 20:26), and then He separates the Levites from the rest of us. (Bamidbar 8:14) How can we expect a humanity which resists segregation to respect a religion which sanctifies it? How can the same ketonet represent the flawed separation of Yosef, and the sanctified separation of the kohen?

Perhaps a meaningful difference between flawed separation and acceptable separation is the identity of the Separator. As the Talmud Yerushalmi (Berachot 5:2) notes, establishing distinctions requires intelligence – and establishing distinctions which shape the lives of human beings requires the Supreme Intelligence of Hashem. Hashem is the One who distinguishes between sacred and mundane, between light and dark, between the Jews and the nations, and between the seventh day and the six days of creative activity.

The kohen's ketonet highlights Divine separation. True, the ketonet represents the bloodshed which resulted from separating Yosef. However, in donning this tunic the kohen restores the power of separation to G-d, righting an ancient wrong. Further, the nation that accepts the kohen demonstrates its acceptance of legitimate, Divine separation. [And see Talmud Yerushalmi Yoma 7:3, which adds that the ketonet also atones for kilayim – a mixing of species which G-d has deemed separate.]

Realistically, life requires that we assign roles, defining confidants, spouses, political leaders, religious authorities, and so on. We need to define eligibility. But to the extent possible, we must respect the impact of distinctions, and practice humility, minimizing our meddling. G-d has assigned different roles to different nations, to different families of Israel, and to different genders; may we refrain from arrogating the power of segregation and creating novel restrictions and boundaries. May we channel our efforts into accepting our Divinely assigned roles, and fulfilling the tasks vouchsafed to us.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

#BeTheWall for Israel

This campaign is something my Beit Midrash developed with our local Bnei Akiva chapter, and it's been spreading on Facebook. The idea, which is based on The Shmira Project, is simple: Take on a mitzvah practice for Kislev, and dedicate the merit to a community in Israel.

I'm doing it, committing to extra care in my berachot, and dedicating merit to Gilo. If the project appeals to you, please join me.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Why Do Rabbis Crash?

In an article titled "Rabbis on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown", Jay Michaelson contends that the special political/emotional/psychological pressures of the rabbinate, coupled with the workload, could be one reason behind the regular appearance of scandalously poor decision-making by people who are trained to be wise, selfless community leaders.

In the comments on his piece, the author is taken to task by readers who think he is exonerating misbehaving rabbis. But I don't think he's finding criminals innocent; I think he is trying to identify a flaw in the system, which is making their crimes more likely. And I think I have something to add to that useful endeavour: 

Many articles have documented the link between exhaustion and impulsivity and poor self-control. Perhaps one of the best is a 2002 piece by the incredibly well-published psychologist and professor Dr. Roy Baumeister in The Journal of Consumer Research, titled, "Yielding to Temptation: Self-Control Failure, Impulsive Purchasing, andConsumer Behavior". [It's certainly influential; according to Google, it's been cited in 625 separate publications.]

Per Dr. Baumeister, one of the key ingredients of self-control is "the capacity to alter the self." And he contends, citing studies, that someone who perpetually exercises self-control can actually deplete it, making it unlikely that he will be able to continue to apply self-control. In one study, "participants in various control conditions were exposed to similar stimuli but did not have to regulate their behavior. For example, they watched the same upsetting film without having to regulate their emotions, or they were permitted to eat the chocolates and cookies instead of the radishes. Afterward, we measured self-regulation in ostensibly unrelated other tasks, such as physical stamina on a handgrip exerciser, persistence in the face of failure on unsolvable anagrams, or refraining from laughing and smiling while watching a comedy video. The findings repeatedly showed that self-control was poorest among people who had already performed a prior act of self-control."

Now imagine a rabbi who is involved with congregants on many diverse levels – pastoral, administrative, ritual, social, organizational – for 90-100 hours per week, including Shabbat. And imagine that yes, he owns impulses for grossly inappropriate behaviour. But he doesn't have daily time to flee the situation and recharge. How long will it be before he yields to a grotesquely wrong impulse?

Of course, other jobs also involve long, intense hours – and we see these breakdowns of self-control among professionals in those fields, too. We see it among politicians and doctors, police officers and nurses. And we see it among mothers. [It may exist in the modern wave of stay at home dads, too; I don't know.]

The uncomfortable reality, which I observed in my own synagogue rabbinate days, is that the job we have created for synagogue rabbis is impossible. Not "impossible" in the sense of "boy, that's hard". "Impossible" in the sense that there are not enough hours for them to do the job demanded of them, and recharge.

Here's a breakdown of a sample rabbinic week, acknowledging it depends on the nature of the shul/community:
3 classes = 3 hours of class, 9 hours of preparation = 12 hours
Shabbat sermon = 4 hours of preparation (on a good week!)
Hospital visits = 6 visits = 4 hours
2 funerals = 4 hours for the funerals, 4 hours beforehand with the families, 3 hours of attending the shivah homes = 11 hours
Nursing home visit = 1 visit to see various patients = 2.5 hours
Shul bulletin responsibilities = 1 hour (will vary widely across shuls)
Pastoral counseling = 8 appointments (if he's lucky) = 6 hours (if he's even luckier)
Answering halachic questions = 45 minutes each non-Shabbat day = 4.5 hours
Answering email questions/comments from the community = 30 minutes per day, including Motzaei Shabbat = 3.5 hours (if he's absurdly lucky)
Community organization meetings (schools, UJA Federation, JCC, etc) = 2 per week, 2 hours each = 4 hours
Tzedakah disbursement = 1 hour (will vary widely)
Attend 2 weddings = 4 hours per wedding = 8 hours (seasonal, of course, and depends on community)
Attend 2 L'chaims = 30 minutes per L'Chaim = 1 hour (ditto)
Work with shul committees to plan programs = 3 meetings = 3 hours
Preparing divrei torah/articles for special events = 2 hours
Participate in three shul programs (Sisterhood, youth, social, etc) = 3 hours           

This list is already at 70 hours, and it does not include:
Shabbos responsibilities
Pre-Yom Tov responsibilities
Community dinners and fundraising events
Responsibilities to the Eruv, Vaad haKashrut, Chevra Kadisha – and, yes, mikvah
Daf Yomi, which is standard for rabbis in many communities
Responsibilities to community organizations beyond attending a meeting
Learning with conversion candidates
Other life-cycle events - Bris, Pidyon haBen, Unveiling, etc.
Teaching Bar Mitzvah and Bar Mitzvah students
Meeting with couples to prepare for marriage
Mediating disputes within families or between people
Writing articles for local newspapers
Calling shut-ins to wish them Good Shabbos
Oversee Adult Education efforts
Legwork to help people find work, a shidduch, a chavruta or a pair of tefillin
Meet with potential donors for the shul

And contrary to popular belief, this is not subject to synagogue size. A smaller community will have fewer hours devoted to some of the items on this list, but that will be balanced by greater responsibilities in other areas. In a smaller synagogue, rabbis have greater administrative responsibilities, and greater roles in communal institutions. They also do the programming/promotional work which is managed by committees in larger synagogues.

So yes – I'm not exaggerating when I say this is an impossible job. There is no opportunity to recharge the resources of self-control.

Is there anything we can do? Maybe, but I think that the best shot comes not from the rabbis or their organizations, but from the communities. It's Reality, for at least these three reasons::

1. There are more rabbis than there are positions, and so a shul can create an unrealistic job description and find a dozen or more qualified applicants. There is no check on the Search Committee and its polls of the synagogue membership, and no one saying, "Does that actually work?"

2. Rabbis are poor time managers. I believe it's a product of the system of yeshiva education, in part, in which we just throw time at our learning without spending a lot of energy figuring out whether we are learning efficiently. All use of time for Torah is good, right? [I also suspect that the rabbinate self-selects people who fit this mold; anyone with a sane understanding of how time works would find a different life.]

3. Rabbis are heirs to a tradition that idolizes total dedication, as I discussed here.

So I'd like to see the communities take the lead on recognizing the problem posed by their job descriptions.

I once counseled a friend who was interviewed for a shul job that was advertised as 20 hours per week. I suggested that he ask the committee how they wanted the 20 hours used. As I sit here now, I think that would be a good exercise for search committees in general, before they ever see candidates – break down the hours of the week and see how they fit your job description.

I have much more to say on the topic, but the reason I post only infrequently is that I am also doing one of those ridiculous jobs. I think my self-control is saved by the time I spend locked in traffic on Bathurst; if I don't use the phone at those times, and I let go of the fantasy that switching lanes will get me to my destination sooner, then that becomes time for my recharging…

But I have written a lot on the Rabbinic Job Description over the years; click here for other posts on the topic.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Poppies for Remembrance Day

Jewish Canadians love Prime Minister Stephen Harper; the surest way to earn an ovation at a Jewish event is to thank the Prime Minister for his support for the State of Israel. We are glad to live in a democracy that endorses our freedom of religion, and we certainly take advantage of the rest of the freedoms guaranteed by our laws, overseen by our government, and safeguarded by our military... why are November's poppies, marking Tuesday's Remembrance Day, relatively uncommon in the observant Jewish community?

As I've written elsewhere, it seems to me that overt patriotism is somewhat “un-cool” in Torah-observant communities, in Canada and beyond. Perhaps this is a product of centuries of harm wreaked by a range of governments upon our people. Maybe it's due to Jewish law's insistence that the Jews should be "other" when living among non-Jewish neighbours. Or, it could be because of the way that those neighbours have marked us as "other" in painful ways.

Despite all of the reasons why Jews may be uncomfortable with patriotic expression, I believe that Canadian Jews ought to clearly, publicly express our gratitude for those who have given their lives in the Canadian military. Whatever the misgivings of Pirkei Avot (1:10, 2:3 and 3:2) regarding government and its intentions, we owe a great debt to Canada's soldiers, for their historic roles and for their current actions. I believe we ought to wear the poppy.

Within the realm of halachah, I have heard the contention that wearing a poppy may run afoul of the law of chukot akum, prohibiting dressing "in the manner of the nations", but a read of the relevant sources (Sifri Devarim 81, Maharik 88, Shulchan Aruch and Rama Yoreh Deah 178:1) makes clear that the prohibition applies only to (1) immoral dress and (2) dress worn for reasons which might trace back to idolatrous practices. Neither appears relevant in this case.

I wouldn't wear the poppy in shul for davening, because it would be a distraction for me. I also wouldn't insert it on Shabbat, because of concern for the laws of "stitching" involved in pinning the poppy. But for other times, I will wear my poppy in memory of the fallen. Hakarat hatov (gratitude) and darchei shalom (maintaining a peaceful society) trump being cool...

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Ayeh? (Vayera 5775)

A thought:

Three passersby are welcomed to the tent of Avraham and Sarah, presented with water for their feet, and shown to a shady place beneath a tree. Bread and water are promised, and a much broader repast is laid before them. The appreciative wayfarers dine, and then turn to Avraham with a question: Ayeh? Where is Sarah, your wife? (Bereishit 18:9)

What is their purpose in asking Ayeh? It is not a request to meet the chef; Avraham and Yishmael also prepared the food. Further, they did not actually ask to meet her. And third, the question is unnecessary; as seen in the next biblical chapter, these are angelic beings! Why do they need to ask after Sarah's whereabouts? [Perhaps malachim are not omniscient, but given our first two points, they seem to be seeking something other than Sarah's GPS coordinates.]

Generations of commentators have perceived different messages within the visitors' question; see Bava Metzia 87a, Avot d'Rabbi Natan II 37, and Rashbam here for a range of approaches. However, we might gain additional insight by noting that our Torah portion includes two more Ayeh questions:
  • After their conversation with Avraham, the visitors journey to the city of Sdom, where they find hospitality in the home of Sarah's brother Lot. The residents of the city are hostile to guests, and wish to harm them. They crowd around Lot's house, and demand, Ayeh! "Where are the men? Take them out, and we will 'know' them!" (Bereishit 19:5)
  • The end of our portion finds Avraham and Yitzchak en route to bring an offering to G-d. After three days, they come to a mountain, and Avraham dismisses their two escorts. Avraham loads his son with the firewood, takes up the fire and knife in his own hands, and sets course up the slope. At this late stage, Yitzchak turns to his father with the question, "Here is the fire, here is the wood, but Ayeh, where is the lamb?" (Bereishit 22:7)

We may suggest that in all three of these cases, the query of Ayeh is not merely a request for information. Indeed, both the malachim and the people of Sdom know exactly where their subject is! But in all three instances, asking "Ayeh" is really asking, "Is this being playing its role?" Ayeh is a summons: the time has come, destiny is here, take your place and perform your role! [Indeed, the same may be said for many of the appearances of the Ayeh question in Tanach, and perhaps for all of them.]

  • Climbing Mount Moriah, Yitzchak turns to his father to declare, "It is time for the lamb to play its destined role, as a gift for G-d," and indeed, Avraham responds knowingly, "G-d knows where the lamb is – my son." [See Rashi to Bereishit 22:8.]
  • The villianous people of Sdom attack the home of Lot and demand, "It is time for these guests to play their destined role," to suffer abuse at our hands!
  • And the malachim similarly address Avraham regarding Sarah. "Until now, Sarah has been the faithful follower of your prophecy, travelling from Aram to Shechem to Egypt to Elonei Mamrei. Until now, Sarah has enabled your survival and success. Sarah gave you Hagar, and even insisted you take her as a full wife. But Ayeh! Where is Sarah, the woman you wedded? What she has done to this point is not the sum of her existence, this is not the person she is meant to become. It is time for Sarah to take on a new role." And so Sarah becomes the matriarch who determines the future of the Jewish people, and even the world. [This may also be linked to the change in Sarah's name; see Rashi to Bereishit 17:15.]

The Ayeh summons is not only a biblical call; ayeh is a summons for every human being, in every age. In the absence of visiting malachim, though, we are left to put the question to ourselves: where are we? And like the malachim, we know the literal answer, but the deeper question remains: where are we meant to be? Has our time come, is our destiny at hand, are we fulfilling the role for which we were created, and for which we are uniquely suited? May we not only ask the Ayeh question, but through our lives may we provide its answer.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

How a mikvah scandal could happen: a thought

I hope you enjoyed your Yom Tov. For me - right before Simchat Torah, I found out about the mikvah scandal in Washington DC. That pretty much killed it for me.

In brief, for those who don't know: a veteran "Modern Orthodox" synagogue rabbi is accused of placing a hidden camera in his synagogue's mikvah, and committing related obscene abuses of his position. I spent Simchat Torah reeling at the multifarious horrific ramifications. [I omit his name not to protect him, but because seeing it makes me ill. If you need to know more, feel free to use Google.]

I can't understand this; I find this base betrayal of a community by its 25-year leader as incomprehensible as it is revolting. But I will venture the following thought, without claiming to mind-read the villain in this particular scandal: this sort of crime is enabled when people allow themselves to see others not as human beings, with feelings and emotions, but as objects which happen to populate their world. Ignoring people's feelings allows someone to say, "They won't find out, so where's the harm?"

Our weekly Torah portion, telling the story of the biblical Flood, speaks strongly against this objectification:
  • First, Bereishit 6:2 says G-d decided to destroy the world when powerful men "saw that the daughters were good, and took women from any they chose." The women were merely objects.
  • Second, this may be why G-d chooses to place all of the animals in the direct care of Noach's family for a year, rather than take care of them miraculously. Caring for others, immersing themselves in anticipating and meeting their needs, trains Noach's family to see others as feeling creatures.
  • And third, after the Flood, when Noach's son Cham displays no empathy in humiliating his intoxicated father (Bereishit 9), he is cursed for his insensitivity.
At the other end of the spectrum, one of the Torah's chief paragons of empathy is Moshe Rabbeinu. As a teenager, Moshe endangers his own life to save a Jew who is being beaten – and when he flees the country and arrives, friendless and impoverished in a new place, his very first act is to endanger himself to save Midianite women from harassment at a well. Moshe is worthy to give us the Torah, to be the first Rabbi – the empath who sees kinsmen and strangers, Jewish and non-Jewish, as human beings deserving of selfless friendship and protection.

May we eradicate the objectification of human beings that enables abuse. May we emulate Moshe's activist empathy. And may we teach our children this empathy, making ourselves worthy of the Torah that Moshe brought us, with which we danced last week, on Simchat Torah.

Monday, October 20, 2014

After scandal, a simple mikvah proposal

[Update 8:09 AM - Within a few minutes of posting this, I received a notice from a rabbinic friend, who informed me that the "Mikvah Emunah Society of Greater Washington" has already sent out a notice listing steps that they are taking. One of them is, "Male volunteers who assist MES with maintenance issues at the Wallerstein Mikvah will no longer be permitted to enter the mikvah without a woman accompanying them." Baruch shekivanti, although I believe that having a committee of women control access is a more practical method than accompanying, as outlined below.]

I am still processing the rabbinic scandal from Kesher Israel in Washington DC. (I am not hiding his name to protect him; I am refusing to type it because looking at it makes me ill.) I have many thoughts going through my head, but I'm not ready to post on it today. I'm not sure which ones are logical yet.

However, I do want to make the following proposal: No male should have unfettered access to a mikvah, even a supervising rabbi. 

Like any male, the rabbi should have neither the keys not the combination, whatever system of access is used. There should be a small committee of women who are licensed to let him in (and who will have the ability to inspect it after he leaves, should there be any concerns).

I say this as a rabbi who supervised a community mikvah for eight years, during which time we actually had two mikvaos – an old one, which needed halachic maintenance, and a new one, which needed the halachic attention that comes with a new mikvah. I had the keys and I used them, but in truth, I could have done everything I needed to do by working through a small committee of contact people.

Of course, men also use the mikvah, and the rabbi could have access like any other male during those times. But women should be in charge of making sure the mikvah is open during those times, and should be the ones to lock up, and check the facility as needed, afterward. [And where possible, the men and women should have dedicated changing areas, with the women's changing areas locked when the mikvah is in use by men. Where this is not practical, women should inspect the changing areas from time to time.]

This is not about accusing all rabbis, or all men, of impropriety and evil intent. Rather, it's like in hashgachah in the kosher food industry. Just as we recognize that a religiously observant business owner has a yetzer hara for profit, and therefore we don't allow him unfettered access to his food service establishment, so we must recognize that most males have a yetzer hara in sexual matters, and therefore we should not allow them unfettered access to a place where women are unclothed.

Does this make sense to you?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Shabbos App, lay off my Shabbos!

If you haven't heard about The Shabbos App yet, it's meant to modify the function of your smartphone to avert halachic problems involved in texting on Shabbat.

Here is the opening line of their "Who we are" paragraph:
We are a team of people including programmers, marketing professionals and Rabbis who want to make it easier to be Jewish and fully observant. Today, there are too many people leaving the fold because they find observant Judaism too cumbersome and outdated and it doesn't need to be.

It would be fun to discuss the ins-and-outs of their mechanisms, which are briefly described (sans important halachic details) on their website. Indeed, Rabbi Yisrael Rozen of Machon Tzomet has pointed out a gaping hole in their understanding of grama, here. But I am more interested in their premise: that people are leaving Judaism because halachah is cumbersome and outdated, as demonstrated by the inability to use a cell phone on Shabbos.

I can see ways in which the halachic system is lagging in dealing with new realities, but to me, turning off a cell phone for Shabbos does not demonstrate an outdated halachic system. Just the opposite, it demonstrates the need for the classic halachic system of Shabbos!

I think the Shabbos App is a terrible idea. Am I really the only Jew who was relieved to not answer a phone call or an email for three consecutive days on Rosh HaShanah and Shabbos? For me, if such a break did not exist, I would have to invent it - just as psychologists routinely recommend to their patients that they take time out from the demands of the world on a regular basis.

It's also important to walk away from the phone for a whole host of other reasons, beyond the scope of this post; take Louis CK's advice and turn off the phone!

So I find the "Shabbos App" idea most un-app-ealing. It's not what I want for myself, for my children, or for my environment. I shudder to think of spending Yom Kippur in shul, Succos lunch with friends, Simchas Torah dancing with the Torah or Shabbos afternoon at the park surrounded by texters. Please, please: lay off my Shabbos!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Roger Bannister and Team Naive (Derashah before Neilah 5775)

The Internet can be inspiring, even when the tales it tells aren't exactly true.

Listen to the following story, reported on the website by Dr. Jill Ammon-Wexler; a key part of it is false, but I still find it inspirational. Quoting Dr. Ammon-Wexler:[1]
For many years it was universally believed to be impossible for mankind to run a mile in four minutes. The athletes of the time held this belief, and the scientific world totally agreed.
But then on May 6, 1954 -- something remarkable happened. It seems there was one man who did NOT believe it impossible to run a “four minute mile.” In fact this man firmly believed this barrier could be broken ... and that he would be the one to do so. The name of this remarkable rebel was Roger Bannister -- and on that fateful day he did indeed run the first historically-recorded “four minute mile.”
Bannister’s amazing victory illustrates the power of one man’s belief in his own capabilities. But it is even more interesting that just six weeks later, Australian runner John Landy cut one second off Bannister’s record. And in the following ten years almost two hundred people also broke this so-called “impossible” barrier. Why did this happen? Because Bannister shattered the belief that the four minute mile was impossible. And when that belief fell … the 4-minute mile suddenly became possible.

Most of the story Dr. Ammon-Wexler tells is true:
  • Many authorities did believe that the four minute mile was physiologically impossible. For example: In 1943, an American newspaper's sports editor, Elliott Metcalf, used record quarter-mile times to demonstrate that a four-minute mile could not be achieved.[2]
  • Roger Bannister did firmly believe that this barrier could be broken – and on May 6, 1954, he became the first human being in recorded history to run a mile in four minutes.
  • And just weeks later, on June 21, John Landy did cut a second off of Bannister's record. And since the time Bannister showed the world it could be done, thousands more "four-minute miles" have been run; New Zealand's John Walker has done it 135 times, and American Steve Scott has run even more. High schoolers have done it, and Eamonn Coghlan did it after turning 40.

I find this story inspirational because of Roger Bannister's remarkable ability to envision success, shut out the cynics, and drive himself to achieve his goal. He knew that many others thought him naïve, and he overrode their doubts with his resolve.

In a world which finds our Torah's expectations alien and unreasonable, we need to take pride in our purported naivete as we pursue those expectations:
  • We need to take pride in our goal of Shmiras haLashon, of speaking only positively about each other.
  • Of giving 10% of our after-tax income to tzedakah.
  • Of rising early in the morning for shacharit, and spending serious time in Torah study during our day.
  • Of dressing in a way which honours our privacy.
  • Of observing Shabbos  - We now have the absurd authors of the Shabbos-App telling us that we must alter Shabbos and accept phone use, because it's just not possible to expect our kids to observe Shabbos without it.
  • And of completing our teshuvah, setting out this year to conquer the obstacles that conquered us last year.
We need Roger Bannister's ability to imagine a goal, and pursue it, even when the world thinks it impossible.

But an important part of that Bannister story was not true: Bannister was not alone; many athletes of the 1930's, 1940's and 1950's absolutely believed that the four-minute mile was achievable. A French runner set the mile record at 4:09 in 1931. Jack Lovelock of New Zealand moved it down to 4:07.6 in 1933. American Glenn Cunningham took it to 4:06.8 in 1934, and three years later British Sydney Wooderson dropped the record to 4:06. Then two Swedes took turns breaking the record multiple times, dropping it to 4:01.4 in 1945.  And there was John Landy, who headed for Finland in May 1954 for an attempt at the four-minute mark, only to arrive and hear that Bannister had already done it in England.[3]

Roger Bannister had confidence in his vision, but he also had something else: the company of other athletes. Bannister was not on his own; he was part of a team of people who were naïve rebels, insisting that it could be done, that they could do it.
That team is crucial; left to ourselves, it's all too easy to pull up short and say, "What, am I out of my mind?" Being the brooding hero who bucks the entire world is attractive when you're a teenager or when you spin webs and have Spidersense, but as we go through our adult, real-world existences, we get hit hard by life, and coping and hitting back requires the confidence of a team on our side. When we are surrounded by others who share our dreams and our goals and our confidence, then even our most questionable visions appear closer to reality.

Look at Avraham and Sarah, who were told to leave their land, their birthplace, the home of their fathers. They didn't go alone – they brought הנפש אשר עשו בחרן, which a midrash explains refers to like-minded people they had attracted. They brought Lot, even though he was part of that family they were supposedly leaving behind.[4] They brought Eliezer. They brought a network.

Or move forward millenia, to the end of the second Beis haMikdash. When the Romans were crushing the backbone of the Jewish nation by banning the study of Torah on penalty of brutal death, a sage named Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma was invited to come live in a town where they would pay him handsomely. As Pirkei Avos[5] tells the story, Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma declined the invitation, saying, "No matter what you pay me, I will never live anywhere other than a place of Torah." Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma's reply is hard to understand, though, since passages of gemara elsewhere[6] show that he lived in Rome! Was Rome, heart of the barbaric empire, a place of Torah?!

Interesting approaches to the problem are offered,[7] but one answer is simple: The same gemara that places Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma in Rome also places Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon, and his students, in Rome of that time. What Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma needed was not a city full of kollelim and batei medrash, but a team, a few like-minded people who shared his vision, who shared his naivete, who would inspire him and who would be inspired by him.[8]

Roger Bannister's dual message – ignoring the world's doubts and drawing on the strength of similarly confident people – is particularly important for us at Neilah.

In just a few minutes, we are going to say the most audacious words in the entire siddur. We've said them already today, but here they come one more time:
 “אלקי, עד שלא נוצרתי איני כדאי.” “My Gd, before I was created, I was not worthy.”
ועכשיו שנוצרתי כאילו לא נוצרתי.” “And now that I have been created, I am as though I had never been created.”
עפר אני בחיי, קל וחומר במיתתי.” “I am dust in my lifetime, how much moreso in my death.”
הרי אני לפניך ככלי מלא בושה וכלימה.” “I am before You as a vessel filled with shame and humiliation.”
And yet, “יהי רצון מלפניך ד' אלקי ואלקי אבותי שלא אחטא עוד!”
“But nevertheless, HaShem,
despite my degradation,
despite the fact that I know I have not lived up to my potential,
despite the fact that I know you want me to be so much greater than I am,
despite the fact that I violated pretty much every law this year that I apologized for last year, and the year before that,
despite all of those facts - May it be Your will, HaShem, MY Gd, Gd of MY ancestors, that I never sin again!”

It's remarkably, audaciously naïve – and that's just fine, because all of us will say it, all of us will commit to it, a team of runners who believe, running in parallel to break the four-minute mark that is teshuvah.

Bannister's story has one more part: As I said before, six weeks after Bannister broke the 4-minute mark, John Landy knocked a second off of the new record. And then, just a few weeks after that, the two ran head-to-head in a race in Vancouver. In what would become known as "The Miracle Mile", both men broke the four-minute mark; Bannister won with a time of 3:58.8 and Landy came in at 3:59.6.[9]

That Miracle Mile is the power of a team with a vision, and that is our power here, when we commit ourselves to the unreasonable goal of שלא אחטא עוד, that we never sin again. Let us, as a minyan, be that team with a bold vision, sharing our strength with each other and driving each other forward, to break that four-minute mile of teshuvah together, and earn a גמר חתימה טובה.

[4] See Chezi Cohen, אברהם ולוט – מפרדה לפירוד, Megadim 54 (Nisan 5773)
[5] Perek 6
[6] Sanhedrin 98a, Avodah Zarah 18a
[7] See, for example,
[8] Note the conversation between R' Chanina ben Tradyon and R' Yosi ben Kisma on Avodah Zarah 18a.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Unpacking naivete

In my previous post, I said:

I believe that naivete has an important place in our lives, in moving us from an ugly world to a more attractive one. Naivete regarding other people, naivete regarding Gd, naivete regarding ourselves. Let me be a cynic all year long, but not now, not in these weeks.

Let me add a few explanatory sentences here:

Normally, I believe in confronting questions, even going looking for them. I would rather read Richard Dawkins or biblical criticism, encountering their challenges and dealing with them, rather than pretend they don't exist; it fits my temperament. I tend to click on links that tout the latest scientific discovery that seems to contradict Bereishit, or that provide evidence tying traits of the soul with hormones and neural circuitry.

As Rosh HaShanah approaches, though, I prefer to turn off all of that noise. Not because its questions are any less valid, but because this isn't the time for it. Elul, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur - these are like a marriage with Gd, a time when we are supposed to feel and express love. It's very hard to express love, to have a real bonding experience, while you're looking over your shoulder.

Hence my Rosh HaShanah derashah this year - naive in the extreme as it touted a relationship with Gd, while eliding the very real questions about just how much (or little) Gd wants that relationship. On Rosh HaShanah, I'm good with that.

As I explained it to a friend on Rosh HaShanah, I see the run-up through Elul like a second marriage. When a young couple, fresh out of school, go to the chuppah, they might have eyes only for each other, thinking the other is the best and the most attractive and the most ideal. But then imagine a couple entering a second marriage; they've seen the world, and they know that perfection is a myth and that their partner has warts and wrinkles in both body and personality. As they walk to the chuppah, though, they had better put the doubts and concerns out of their minds; to start off their marriage in a healthy way, they need that moment when they look at each other as though this is heaven, and there really is no one else in the world. Let the problems wait for another day.

That's my Elul. For these weeks, let me think that the people around me are wonderful. Let me believe that I can be wonderful. Let me trust, untrammeled, in a bond with my Creator, who watches and cares. Next week, I'll go back to wrestling with skepticism, but right now, I'm headed to the chuppah.

Monday, September 29, 2014

A healthy dose of naivete

What's on my mind after Rosh Hashanah and Shabbos Shuvah?

Three music videos that I like not because their music is outstandingly good, but because צמאה נפשי for a world in which the vision of unity presented in these videos was the norm:

Of course, I know that there are real reasons for the schisms among our nation, and there are substantive issues of both philosophy and practice that divide us. All the same, I believe that naivete has an important place in our lives, in moving us from an ugly world to a more attractive one. Naivete regarding other people, naivete regarding Gd, naivete regarding ourselves.

Let me be a cynic all year long, but not now, not in these weeks.

More on this theme of naivete in the days leading up to Yom Kippur, I expect.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Are You my mother? (Derashah for Rosh HaShanah)

Several years ago, researchers at Baylor University in the US published a study entitled, "American Piety in the 21st century".[1] They asked Americans to identify what kind of Gd they believed in. The five choices were:
  • Authoritarian (meaning that Gd is highly involved in day-to-day life, in punishing ways),
  • Benevolent (meaning that Gd is highly involved in day-to-day life, in helpful ways);
  • Critical (meaning that Gd is not involved in the world, but Gd watches and judges and will reward and punish eventually);
  • Distant (meaning that Gd started the world, but doesn't care about it or run it);
  • And atheist.
When the results were broken down by religion,[2] Evangelical Protestants largely believed that Gd is authoritarian. Mainline Protestants and Catholics were split. And among Jews, the dominant choice was D – 41.7% of respondents who identified themselves as Jewish believed that Gd is distant – not watching, not caring, what happens in our universe.

Tanach presents the story of a man who came to agree with that 41.7%, a man who lived in a place called Utz; his name was Iyov.

You might have heard of Iyov; here's a quick outline of his story:
  • Iyov enjoys a large family and magnificent wealth, and is extraordinarily devoted to Gd.
  • Off in heaven, a malicious malach charges that Iyov only serves Gd because Gd protects him. Gd permits the malach to test Iyov; the malach takes almost everything away from him.
  • Iyov is visited by various people who try to justify his suffering. He rejects their claims; he curses the day he was born, arguing that there is no justice, that Gd has outsourced the running of the universe and isn't paying attention. He demands to sue Gd for negligence.
  • Gd then addresses Iyov personally, challenging him: What do you know about running a universe? Where were you when I created the world? What are your powers?
  • At which point Iyov apologizes for his words, accepting Gd's response. Gd then gives Iyov a new start in life, with great rewards.
The book invites many questions – I intend to discuss more about it in a class during the break on Yom Kippur – but for now I want to ask just two:
  • First: How does Gd's "answer" to Iyov address his questions, and why does Iyov accept it?
  • And Second: Iyov seems to reject Gd throughout the book, proving that the malach was right. So why does Gd reward him at the end?
I would like to re-write the book of Iyov, and answer Baylor's 41.7%, with an idea that goes to the heart of Rosh haShanah and the mitzvah of shofar.

People usually believe that the sole problem of the book of Iyov is Iyov's question to Gd: "Why do good people suffer?" But as we have seen, that question is barely answered in the book! Instead, Professor Yaakov Klein of Bar Ilan University[3] suggests that a second central problem of the book of Iyov is the malach's question to Gd: "Why do people follow Gd?" Do human beings revere and serve their Creator to win fabulous prizes, or for something else? And this is answered in the book, by Iyov himself.

The book makes clear that Iyov is loyal because he believes he has a relationship with Gd. When he suffers without apparent reason, he assumes there is no relationship; like the 41.7%, he decides that the Creator is allowing proxies to run the world. Angry and hurt, he rejects this distant Gd. Then Gd responds that He is indeed watching and running the universe, that He is aware of a man named Iyov and his fortunes and misfortunes. Gd declares, "I halt the oceans where they are, I harness the mightiest beings in existence, and I still have time to pay attention to you. I won’t tell you how justice works, but I will tell you that I am watching, and I care." That's Gd's response to Iyov.

Iyov accepts Gd's declaration because that's all he ever wanted – it confirms what he believed at the start of the book, that Gd is watching. Iyov didn't need great rewards, and he didn't need to know the mechanics of Divine justice. What Iyov needed was to know that Gd was watching, listening, caring, at all. Whether Gd is Authoritarian, Benevolent or Critical is irrelevant; once Iyov knew that Gd was not Distant, he was satifisfied.

And because Iyov was satisfied with that response, because Iyov showed that what mattered to him was not fabulous prizes but the existence of a relationship, Gd rewarded Iyov – because with his actions Iyov answered the malach's question in the most positive of ways. The malach had claimed that human beings revere Gd for selfish reasons, and Iyov answered him: We do it because we believe in a relationship. We do it because we believe that Gd cares about the events of our lives. Because even if Gd is מונה מספר לכוכבים, able to number the stars, He is first הרופא לשבורי לב, the healer of broken hearts.[4]

Iyov is not the only human being in the Torah to want Gd to see us, to be near us; the biblical narrative is replete with such people:
  • Avraham serves Gd not for reward, but as אוהבי, the one who loves Gd.[5]
  • After the Golden Calf, when Gd indicates He is going to separate from the Jews, Moshe dictates to Gd, "אם אין פניך הולכים אל תעלנו מזה," "If You won't be our intimate, leave us here in the wilderness!"
  • In our haftorah this morning, Chanah warns us, אל תרבו לדבר גבוהה גבוהה. As Abarbanel explains, she insists, "Don’t say that Gd is elevated and far away from us; Gd is near at hand!"

Our need for proximity to Gd is fundamental to Judaism. To borrow a phrase from the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead,[6] this is one of the "irreducible and stubborn facts" of Judaism, a first principle which must be accepted in order for us to discuss anything Jewish: being one of the 41.7% is to be out-of-step with Jewish theology. The Jew demands Divine immediacy, that Gd pay attention.

And in parallel, it is an irreducible and stubborn fact of the Torah's conception of Gd, that Gd longs to be near us; Gd does not want to be of Baylor's 41.7%.
  • Thus HaShem commands the Jews to build a משכן, a sanctuary in their midst, in which He will dwell. And so the Kinos of Tishah b'Av describe the effect of the loss of the Beis haMikdash not only in terms of our human suffering, but in terms of Gd suffering, כביכול, as a newly homeless, rootless being, ונהיית כצפור בודד על גג, like a lone and lonely bird perched upon a roof.
  • Thus HaShem commands us not only to perform mitzvah actions, but ואהבת, to love Gd, to contemplate Gd, to draw near to Gd.
  • Thus the Talmud tells us that when a single person is studying Torah, Gd is present.[7] When just one individual grieves for the death of a good person, Gd counts and stores the tears.[8] When a single person prays in silence, Gd listens.[9] הקב"ה מתאוה לתפלתן של צדיקים, Gd longs for our prayers.[10]
If this relationship is not the reason we were created, it is, at the least, fundamentally necessary to, and inextricable from, the Divine plan.

This is the way Gd planned our existence, from the beginning – to live with Gd, in Gan Eden. When HaShem created the plants and animals and people of this world, He used the same terms to describe all of them. But He did not address the plants and animals. He only addresses humanity. As Rav Soloveitchik explained,[11] "Gd takes [this] man-animal into His confidence, addresses him and reveals to him His moral will."

Indeed, this need for human-Gd proximity is a major reason why large numbers of people, Jewish and non-Jewish, wander the earth searching for Gd, migrating from philosophy to philosophy trying to find Gd. It's like the classic children's story, "Are you my mother?" The baby bird knows he has a mother, wants his mother, and travels the world trying to find her.

It's also one of the causes for angry atheism. Like Iyov, people have sought Gd, and they have been disappointed and frustrated. They are turned off by perpetual Divine absence and perceived Divine abuse - and they are also frustrated by the gross improprieties of human beings who claim to represent Gd, and this drives them the other way, to insist that there is no Gd at all. They have been hurt and let down.

And as a tangent – this one is not only on Gd, it's also on us. Us, the rabbis, and us, the visibly observant Jews. If our behaviour isn't beyond reproach, or if we conflate the laws and lessons of Torah with superstition, or if we are self-satisfied and arrogant, if we fail to inspire the confidence and faith of those around us, then we are the reason why people are unable to find their mother, we are the reason why people become hostile, we are the reason why people choose Option D. They believe Gd is distant in part because people who visibly select Options A, B and C portray a relationship with Gd that is repugnant. But I digress.

Torah is meant to be a way for us to find that relationship with Gd. As the Talmud Yerushalmi says, the goal of Torah is to bring us into that relationship with Gd.[12] It's what Gd wants. It's what we want. And it's what Iyov wanted, all along – not to have his material needs met, but to enjoy a relationship.

To return to Rosh haShanah: This relationship with Gd is a central theme of the day; Rosh haShanah is the day that tells us that there is a relationship.
  • It's not a human-centred day of self-analysis, for us to review our pasts and make resolutions for our future. We spend our day in הכתרת מלך, crowning Gd, in human consideration of the Divine.
  • It's not a Gd-centred day of distant decrees, taking place in some throneroom up in the heavens. It is a יום הדין, a day of Divine consideration of human beings in judgment.

In the very structure of our musaf of Rosh haShanah, our liturgy sends this message:
  • We remember our King – מלכויות.
  • And our King remembers us – זכרונות.
  • And as the Talmud[13] says, ובמה? בשופר. Nowhere is this more clear than in the shofar, forever the symbol of the encounter between human being and Gd. From the ram substituted for Yitzchak on the altar, to the shofar blast when the Torah was given at Har Sinai, to the shofar blasts of Yovel every fifty years, to the shofar of mashiach, the ram's horn represents human and Gd meeting together.

When we hear the shofar blown in a few minutes, let us remember that this is the central point of Rosh haShanah: rejecting Option D. During shofar, we occupy these moments alongside Gd, because Gd is here, and listening, and thinking of us.

Last year at this time, I proposed that shofar is not about verbal exposition; rather, shofar is an experience; existimare aude, "dare to experience." For some of us, the mood of that experience will be apologetic. For some it will be grateful. For some it will be mournful. For some it will be a moment of petition. That's up to each of us to formulate; the key is that we recognize within ourselves that which our ancestors saw when they canonized the book of Iyov in Tanach: That the irreducible and stubborn fact of our Jewish existence is against the 41.7%. Our Creator connects with us, and we connect with our Creator.

May we merit to connect with our Creator, to build that relationship, today and for the rest of the year, to live lives which convince others that there is such a relationship, and so merit a כתיבה וחתימה טובה, to be inscribed and sealed for a great year, and then to live a great year.

[2] Pg. 32 of the pdf
[3] Olam haTanach, Iyov, pp. 9-10
[4] Tehillim 147:3-4
[5] Yeshayah 41:8
[6] The Influence of Western Medieval Culture Upon the Development of Modern Science, And see R' Eliezer Berkovits in Tradition 3:2 (1961) "What is a Jewish Philosophy?", who attributed the phrase to Galileo. I know no basis for attributing it to Galileo, but I am channeling R' Berkovits's use of the concept to define a " Jewish" philosophy here.
[7] Avos 3:2, 3:6
[8] Shabbos 105b
[9] Yerushalmi Berachos 9:1
[10] Chullin 60b
[11] The Emergence of Ethical Man, pg. 5
[12] Yerushalmi Chagigah 1:7, Eichah Rabbah Pesichta 2, based on Yirmiyah 16:11
[13] Rosh haShanah 16a